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The Jennifer Morgue
Orbit paperback £6.99
review by Duncan Lawie
Charles Stross has proven both prolific and able in his promulgation of the geek perspective. From his early Y2K story in a 1995 Interzone to his championing of Linux as a Computer Shopper columnist, Stross has shown he is one of them. The Jennifer Morgue is Stross sharing a joke with his buddies. Where his Family Trade series and Glasshouse look outward, snaring other readers, this book largely assumes that it will be read by geeks.
Bob Howard first appeared as the protagonist of The Atrocity Archive. He is an IT expert working for Capital Laundry Services. This is not as mundane as it seems since the Laundry is a secret department of the British government that deals with the occult - creatures from beyond our universe which can be summoned through complex mathematics; so Bob is a trained computational demonologist. As The Jennifer Morgue opens, Bob has been at the Laundry for five years and his combination of field skills and IT knowledge are sitting awkwardly upon him. Like many a geek with a few years experience, he's afraid that he might be getting a career. He is being sent off to meetings in suits, an experience which disturbs him to the core of his being.
This setting is rich with opportunity for geek jokes, commentary on office culture and terrifying death by extraordinary means. Bob rapidly finds himself caught up in a James Bond style plot with clever billionaires, gambling and yachts in the Caribbean. The comedy elements mix wry Dilbert style humour with mad mugging at the camera but in comparison, the horror elements don't work as well here as in the first book. This could be because much of the humour in the books is in the Bond structure and we all know how this plot is supposed to work. As a result it never seems likely that the dread occult being will awaken to destroy the world. By contrast, the smaller jabs of danger are effective as they provide a personal threat.
Even so, there is plenty of occult action, from rotting zombies to USB bowties. Amidst the chaos, Stross slips in a certain amount of explanation of European habits for the Americas - where the first edition was published - that extends to a subtle reinforcement of the British way of doing things. The storyline also flips away from the first person narrator in the centre part of the novel and the overloading gives the book a feeling of attention deficit disorder. This is quite intentional, though, providing a busy surface to conceal the complexity of the plot from the reader, even as the protagonist's view is gradually revealed. To say more would be to reveal too much - a sign of a good joke and some very clever writing. Altogether, The Jennifer Morgue is a satisfying package. It's the lighter side of Stross, though, entertaining without stretching either himself or his audience.
For its geek audience, the nature of the book provides further entertainments. It is constructed like a DVD. The novel is the main feature, but there is also an extra short story and a 'making of' featurette. The story - Pimpf - plays with Bob's archetype and advancing career by giving him a pimply-faced youth, deeply in the tradition of the BOFH (bastard operator from hell). The PFY gets trapped in a game and Bob has to save him. I found this mildly entertaining, though I suspect aficionados of Neverwinter Nights will appreciate it more. Interestingly, the story also shows how Stross could do a Harry Potter with Bob Howard, and grow him into senior geekdom and responsibility, ageing beside his audience. The afterword - The Golden Age Of Spying - begins as a modern critical review of the career of Ian Fleming and of his character. This is fascinating, but Stross can't keep his cultural studies hat on straight for long. An 'interview with Blofeld' manages to be both silly in itself and an interesting deconstruction of the movie villain, which then veers towards the dark, Lovecraftian interpretation of the Cold War. If this were a DVD review the extras would get four stars.
A final note - given Stross' known predilection for eliminating typos, he must be frustrated with the quality of this publication - a noticeable number of errors have crept into the adaptation from the American hardback to the British paperback. Given that this release has not included British spelling, there is no excuse for any errors to have been added to the typescript.
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