Tuesday, August 25, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

1. Another Summer Reading book, this one the fifth in the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross.  (This appears to be my summer for coming in late on book series.) The Rhesus Chart is the latest entry in the continuing escapades of The Laundry, the British intelligence agency chartered to combat supernatural threats in a particularly Lovecraftian world. You might think X-Files or Torchwood but not really close: this group fights elders gods and eldritch horrors that make most demons look like chumps. Even vampires (the antagonists of this book) are in the minor leagues in this world.

2. Stross has a great conceit for incorporating monsters and magic into the modern world: complex operations of higher math serve as spells or rituals for opening gateways to other, nastier dimensions. Just thinking hard about certain calculations or formulas can lead to Bad Things happening - and with computers increasing our capability for calculation, more Bad Things are happening more often. The Laundry are just the folks who can control the Bad Things better; the agents are mostly wizards of some kind or another. There's a character call the Eater of Souls - and he's one of the good guys.

3. After mashing up arcana and espionage, Stross spreads a layer of satire over the whole thing. The Laundry is an organization subject to committee meetings, expense vouchers, strategic plans, health & safety regulations and all the rest: bureaucracy at its most relentless. Our protagonist, Bob Howard, is subject to "matrix management" and has to divide his time between his work as an IT professional and as a field agent. In many ways, this is the most enjoyable aspect of the book, but it takes an awful lot of suspension of disbelief to think that the organization wouldn't be run along more military lines, given the nature and scale of the threats they face.

4. That bureaucratic milieu does give the book a feeling more like LeCarre or Deighton than Fleming - this book could have been called Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sorcerer for all the double-talking, double-dealing, and duplicity within the agency.

5. Overall, the biggest issue I have with book is not the setting or the characters or even the plot, which was a little plug-and-chug but all right in the end. It's that Stross just doesn't write with enough economy. Howard is very self-conscious narrator and Stross uses devices such as footnotes, digressions, and deliberate awareness of the story as a story, and these are tools that need finesse. A Pratchett or an Adams can handle them just fine; Stross often comes across as just too pleonastic and tedious. Still and all, it's not a bad diversion, if you like spies, horror, and bureaucracy and and can wade through fifty or sixty more pages than you need to.

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