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The Atrocity Archive
Charles Stross
Orbit paperback £6.99

review by Alasdair Stuart

Bob Howard is too smart for his own good. If he wasn't, he would never have been recruited by the Laundry, a long forgotten off-shoot of the British Intelligence services that when they're not trying to eradicate themselves in an ouroroboros of bureaucracy, are busy protecting England from the other universes. You see, it turns out that we live near the 'top' of the stack of universes and the beings further down are not only far from pleasant but familiar to anyone who's ever read any H.P. Lovecraft.

The Atrocity Archives is a wilfully odd and very British piece of fiction. Bob's hideous boss, his general dissatisfaction with his lot in life and his simple, at times touching, bravery all tie into a very pragmatic worldview. This is a universe where Armageddon is a quarter step away, all the time, where the UN has OCCULUS teams, dedicated SWAT units prepared to lay down their lives to stop extra-dimensional threats and where zombies guard certain government buildings. Done wrong, this would be the worst excesses of the increasingly tired supernatural thriller genre writ large, the familiar 'gosh look demons!' parade of standard horror tropes in a modern setting.

It's done right, and done extremely right. Charles Stross has a wonderfully droll ear for dialogue and wears his heart on his sleeve where his references are concerned. Lovecraft and Len Deighton make for unlikely bedfellows but the end result is casually horrific and frequently very funny. More importantly, Stross shifts gears effortlessly with the final sequence of The Atrocity Archives a nail-biting and horrific excursion into a broken universe, one down from our own.

In an unusual move, there are actually two stories collected here. As well as The Atrocity Archives there's also Concrete Jungle which sees Bob called in the middle of the night to go to Milton Keynes to count the concrete cows. Which are actually there by the way, but when Bob goes he finds one more than he should... Unfolding through a series of after action reports and Bob's experiences, Concrete Jungle is a dizzyingly ideas-heavy piece of conspiracy thriller, a story where office politics can get you killed which not only sets up a future adventure for the laconic near-spy but also makes a subtle point about surveillance culture.

Backed up by an articulate, well-argued and at times very funny article about the crossover between espionage and horror, this is an endlessly entertaining novel and one that spy and horror fans alike will enjoy. Blackly funny, horrific and crammed with ideas, it's a high quality story from one of the shining lights of British SF, and is utterly recommended.
The Atrocity Archive

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