The Labyrinth Index, by Charles Stross

It’s been a hot minute since I last read Stross. At least several years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I feel like I’ve changed significantly since then. Both as a person and (more narrowly) as a reader. It seems that Stross has changed somewhat as a writer as well (between this book and The Delirium Brief) but… in most ways the work is still the same. And given that what I really wanted was another Laundry Files book, that’s okay.

Also, I know I’m writing here about a book published three years ago (and therefore written even longer ago) and comparing it with a book published four years ago (thus written even further into the past). Writers are cursed to be judged on the merits of their old selves, forever. I try to be generous.

It’s weird knowing that I’m now at least five years ahead of where Stross was when he wrote the book, because my subconscious still thinks of this book as “current.” A lot has happened in the past five years. C’est la vie.

Anyway.

Did I enjoy The Labyrinth Index? Yes.

But this isn’t the place to start this series. If you pick up this book without having read a good deal of the preceding series, you’ll be lost. Some of you will no doubt pick up on things fast enough to enjoy it, but you’ll probably have a bit of cognitive whiplash. If, on the other hand, you’ve read and enjoyed the other books in the series… you know what you’re getting yourself into and you’ll probably like this one too.

This series is cosmic horror / grim bureaucratic office comedy / political thriller / spy shenanigans, and it’s the only series I know of which hits all those notes. It’s not as introspective or emotionally investigative as other books I’ve read recently. It doesn’t try to be. I’m not saying it’s merely a cold, unfeeling genre fiction monster ready to crush you beneath its plot, but it’s certainly more about intrigue and external plot than it is about interpersonal (or internal) emotional plot.

If you want something that will scratch those genre-itches, and you need to scratch all of them at once, this is the only back scratcher that I know will do the trick. If you haven’t read anything from the series yet, check out The Atrocity Archives and see whether the genre combination is to your taste. Some things in Stross’ writing will change, others will stay the same.

Relatedly… I can’t tell how much Stross’ writing of (or about) female characters has changed. I’ve been weirded out by it in the past, but that weird-factor is just connected enough to the genres Stross switches between, and just intermittent enough, that I have trouble pinning down exactly what is going on. I think he’s improved, but I haven’t compared his earlier work and his current work side by side. Just be aware that there may be odd or uncomfortable stuff there waiting for you.

Also, I sometimes feel a little weirded out by how Stross wrote the future-past—or past-future, or whatever—and wonder what strange scrying he does for his prognostications. But that quasi-prescience is also part of Stross’ appeal for me, and it’s part of what makes reading his “near-future” based work a few years later so fascinating (even if The Laundry Files aren’t the best example of this). It does tend to date his work more thoroughly.

Oh, and: if you don’t mind spoilers, there’s some good thinking on all of the above from Stross himself, right here.

Concept: A Tintin Adventure Flowchart

tintinI think I’ve mentioned my love of Tintin previously.  But I’ve just had a fabulous idea, so you’re going to hear about it again.

Some necessary background: Charles Stross wrote an excellent book, The Jennifer Morgue (part of the Atrocity Archives series, very much worth reading).  He based the story (careful, spoilers) on a combination of real world events and James Bond clichés, and did it excellently.  He did this in part by analyzing the Bond oeuvre (I suppose I should say the Fleming oeuvre, but Fleming really didn’t have that much to do with most of the movies) and creating flowcharts of Bond film opening scenes and general plots.

Yes, you read that correctly.  He watched all the Bond films with a friend and wrote up flowcharts to describe what they saw going on.  Here’s the flowchart of a Bond movie opening scene, and here’s the flowchart of a Bond film writ large.

Now, I love Tintin very much, but there are some problems with the old comics.  Consider:

20140112153933!Tintin-mainCastI’m amazed that Castafiore is even included in the cast of characters.

Angry_King_in_Tintin

Yeah, that’s objectionable.

So I’ve been thinking that I should try writing new Tintin stories.  Well, not Tintin per se, but adventure stories like Tintin’s, without the same racist depictions and with better representation all around.  And Stross’ flowcharts have inspired me.  I plan to go through and re-read a number of old Tintin stories, and try to make a Tintin adventure flowchart that I can follow when the time comes.  It might turn out that this is impossible, and Hergé simply had too many different stories, but I suspect that I could pull something useful out of all this.  What do you think?  Are you interested?

Arctic Rising, by Tobias Buckell

9780091953522

 

Tobias Buckell has made me very happy indeed.  I can’t decide whether I prefer Arctic Rising to Hurricane Fever, and I really liked Hurricane Fever (seriously, read my review).  It’s rare that I have the pleasure of reading a fast paced high-tension thriller set in a brilliantly developed near-future, let alone reading two of them back to back.  Buckell’s world-building is a tremendous draw for me.  It’s quality shines through in the ease with which he introduces the near-future to the reader; he keeps his obvious enthusiasm for the world he’s created tightly leashed, only revealing it in dribs and drabs, more often than not as an in-character rumination or observation that feels entirely appropriate.  Better yet, I didn’t find any gaping implausibilities.  I’ll admit that I didn’t take a fine-toothed comb to the books and their established background, but they hold together well enough to offer a compelling (and somewhat distressing) view of an imminent future.  If you want to treat yourself to a jaunt down “doesn’t this seem likely…” lane, and you want some hair-raising hijinks in the bargain, try either of these books.  If you don’t want to be spoiled for either book before you read it, be sure to read Arctic Rising first, though I did it in the opposite order and still enjoyed myself immensely.

Why did I enjoy it so much?  Well…

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The Quiller Memorandum, by Adam Hall

Ah, pseudonyms.  Adam Hall was one of the pseudonyms used by the author Elleston Trevor (which was itself not the author’s original name).  It seems entirely appropriate to me that such an excellent spy novel should come from someone who felt so compelled to shroud and change their own identity.  If you like spy stories and intrigue, or would like to try dabbling in them for the very first time, look no further.  Quiller is a far better Cold War spy than the cinematic Mr. Bond ever was, more deeply focused on the details of spycraft, practicing intimate information war as a metaphoric knife fight where you’re never truly certain as to who holds the advantage.  Drawing blood is rarely the point of the duel, and secrets are more valuable than lives.  The Quiller Memorandum, as you might have guessed, is a very exciting book.

Does the title feel achingly familiar?  Just like something that you’ve read before?  Well…

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