Friday, 20 August 2010

The Fuller Memorandum

Charles Stross
Orbit (

In an alternative reality where fantasy and SF fiction were a little more mainstream, it’s not hard to imagine Charles Stross’ latest offering piled up on the tables of an airport WH Smith. The Fuller Memorandum is the sort of title you’d expect to find on a Frederick Forsyth novel, and the novel shares much of the fast-paced action and meticulous plotting common to the thrillers of Forsyth, Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton.

We’ve met the novel’s hero, Bob ‘this is not my real name’ Howard, before – in The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, which adhere to the spirit if not the letter of spy thriller naming conventions. And the same attitude persists throughout; despite having been cross-bred with H P Lovecraft, these novels are spy thrillers through and through. The set dressing may land them firmly in cthulhoid horror territory, but the meat of the plot and the stylistic flourishes which characterise said plot are those of a spy thriller doing its level best to keep a fantastical story from floating away. As such the Laundry, that branch of the British intelligence services which concerns itself with occult threats (and employs our Bob), is riddled not only with sorcerers and the sort of artefacts which turn strong minds to fromage frais, but also with the daily hazards more familiar to white-collar workers or civil servants: the looming threat of internal auditors; oversight by Dilbertian middle management; and the ever-watchful eye of Human Resources.

The Fuller Memorandum’s blend of everyday and eldritch horrors works, for the most part: by keeping its feet firmly grounded, the novel builds an effective contrast which highlights the otherworldly nature of its action and keeps it feeling, well, otherworldly. Walking the tightrope of the uncanny is no easy feat, though, and Stross slips from time to time.

Ostensibly written as Bob’s memoirs, The Fuller Memorandum is first-person and bears its narrator’s trademark wisecrackery on every page. The pleasure Stross takes in scribing Whedonesque witticisms is obvious, and he does it well – but horror is a fragile thing, and comes out a firm second in this clash of tones. Even though it’s clear Bob’s inability to let an opportunity pass un–joked-upon is a defence mechanism against a world which terrifies him, the novel never quite recovers from the damage done by its uneven tone. Which is unfortunate, because where The Fuller Memorandum holds to its convictions it paints a picture which is frighteningly bleak; where its happily-married heroes refuse to bring children into a world with no future but that of the book of Revelations. In Bob’s own words:
I wish I was still an atheist. Believing I was born into a harsh, uncaring cosmos – in which my existence was a random roll of the dice and I was destined to die and rot and then be gone forever – was infinitely more comforting than the truth.
Because the truth is that my God is coming back.
When he arrives I’ll be waiting for him with a shotgun.
And I’m keeping the last shell for myself.
Contrasted with the naming of a shiny new Apple phone as ‘the NecronomiPod’, or reference to Lovecraft as a ‘giant mutant gossip squid’, it’s easy to see the warring sides to The Fuller Memorandum at work. And you can’t really have it both ways.

Where Stross more successfully blends his genres is in the novel’s innovative take on magic. Taking literally Arthur C Clarke’s comment that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, The Fuller Memorandum binds the two together quite explicitly. If a spell – shorn of all its ritual paraphernalia – is an applied mathematical function designed to breach the walls between this realm and the odd, non-euclidean dimensions where other things lie sleeping, well, then, consider the fact that computers are very good at number-crunching. Most of the Laundry’s operatives are computer science graduates, snapped up by the department before they accidentally open a gateway to the nether hells during an attempt to recreate Pac-Man in ActionScript 3. Stross’ own background in computer science stands him in good stead, here – the details of Bob’s computational demonology have the ring of authenticity, and the rapid-fire deployment of arcane and technological jargon builds a healthy sense of urgency. Bob’s narration gives the impression of a man trying to convince himself, as much as his reader, that whatever hastily calculated sorcery he’s just knocked up on his smartphone really will keep life, limb and sanity intact. And there’s some great juxtapositional humour, as the sort of minor technological and bureaucratic annoyances we deal with every day in our wired world have repercussions far beyond the everyday: here’s Bob roundly cursing the iPhone’s battery life as it dies halfway through a protective  invocation; there’s the departmental auditors scrupulously tracking paper-clip useage because the things tend to pick up a sympathetic resonance of the classified documents they hold together.

Characterisation is strong, too; Bob’s everyman desperation makes him a richly sympathetic protagonist, and his wife Mo is a capable foil. (More than capable, in fact; one of the more memorable images of The Fuller Memorandum is of Mo relating the traumatising details of an earlier mission where she quite literally wades into the mouth of hell). She also plays the spy better than Bob, whose internal monologue reveals him to be more Clouseau than le Carre. Bob’s boss Angleton, on the other hand, could have stepped straight out of Smiley’s People – he’s a spy of the (very) old school, where backroom deals in gentlemen’s clubs were the order of the day. And the shady Russian , Panin, who seems to be playing a game all of his own as the Laundry struggle with cultists and conspiracies, is of a similarly traditional ilk. Stock thriller characters they may appear, but there’s an economically sketched humanity  to each which gives them room to evolve beyond the stereotype.

While the mix of horror, humour and intrigue might not succeed on all levels, then, there’s a generous enough helping of the latter two ingredients that the weakness of the horror doesn’t cripple The Fuller Memorandum. Stross has scribed an effective, page-turning thriller, with enough wit to elevate it above the usual airport fare. The well-realised setting and depth of characterisation are only gilding the Lovecraftian lily.

This review was originally written for