Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Secret Services: The Laundry

Has it really been more than a month since I last did an installment of Secret Services? Yeesh.

According to my notes, we're up to 2001 in my list of "clandestine government agencies that investigate the supernatural," which can mean only one thing. We've reached one of my favorite Secret Services of recent years, Charles Stross's The Laundry.

The Laundry was first introduced in the novel The Atrocity Archive, which was originally serialized in the pages of Spectrum SF in 2001, and subsequently collected in book form by Golden Gryphon Press in 2004 along with novella "The Concrete Jungle," which won the Hugo for Best Novella in 2005.

The Laundry stories are alternatively referred to as the "Bob Howard" series, after the techie protagonist of the novels and stories to date. He works in the IT department of a secret branch of the British intelligence services known only as the Laundry, which uses modern technology to deal with the occult. Think Lovecraft meets Len Deighton by way of Slashdot and you'll have a pretty good idea what it's all about.

Here's the description of that first novel from the Golden Gryphon site:
In Charles Stross's world of "The Atrocity Archive," Alan Turing, the Father of Modern Computer Science, did in fact complete his theorem on "Phase Conjugate Grammars for Extra-dimensional Summoning." Turing's work paved the way for esoteric mathematical computations that, when carried out, had side effects that would leak through some kind of channel underlying the structure of the Cosmos. And out there in the multiverse were "listeners" — and sometimes these listeners could be coerced into opening gates: Small gates through which minds could be transferred and, occasionally, large gates through which objects could be moved.

In 1945, Nazi Germany's Ahnenerbe-SS, in an attempt to escape the Allied onslaught, performed just such a summoning on the souls of more than ten million. A gate was opened to an alternate universe through which the SS moved men and materiel — to live to fight another day, as it were. But their summoning brought forth more than the SS had bargained for: an Evil, patiently waiting all this time while learning the ways of humans, now poised to lunch on our galaxy, on our very own Earth.

Secret intelligence agencies, esoteric theorems, Lovecraftian horrors, Mid East terrorist connections, a damsel in distress, and a final battle on the surface of a dying planet — in "The Atrocity Archive," Charles Stross has written a high-octane thriller, and readers need to buckle up and hold on with both hands!

The "bonus story" in the novel, "Concrete Jungle," sees Bob Howard involved in a departmental power struggle involving the basilisk's stony gaze and the ubiquitous cameras of the modern British surveillance society. And intriguing hints about the background of the Laundry are dropped in the form of secret files and memos with which Bob is briefed.

In 2006, Golden Gryphon released The Jennifer Morgue, the follow-up to The Atrocity Archives. If the first novel had been Len Deighton, this one was Ian Fleming all the way.

Here's the description from the publisher's site:
In 1975, the CIA made an ill-fated attempt to raise a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. At least, "ill-fated" was the information leaked to the press. In reality, the team salvaged a device, codenamed "Gravedust," that permitted communication with the dead — the very long dead. Enter Ellis Billington, glamorous software billionaire, who has acquired Gravedust by devious means. Billington plans to raise an eldritch horror, codenamed "Jennifer Morgue," from the vasty deeps, and communicate with this dead warrior for the purpose of ruling the world. Worse still, he's prepared occult defenses that can only be penetrated by one agent walking a perilous path.

But James Bond doesn't work for the Laundry. Instead, they send Bob Howard, geekish demonology hacker extraordinaire. Bob must inveigle his way aboard Billington's yacht, figure out what the villain is up to, and stop him. But there's a fly in Bob's ointment by the name of Ramona Random — a lethal but beautiful agent for the Black Chamber, the U.S. counterpart to The Laundry. Billington's yacht is docked in the Caribbean, and Her Majesty's Government is not allowed to operate in this area without an American minder. The Black Chamber has sent Ramona to ride shotgun on Bob, but Ramona has her own agenda that conflicts with her employer's . . .

Bob and Ramona become entangled (literally), and are then captured by Billington and used to further his insidious plot. But let's not forget Bob's significant other, Dr. Dominique "Mo" O'Brien, also an agent of The Laundry, who has been trained especially for this mission. Can these intrepid agents stop Billington from raising the dead horror and thus save the world from total domination? The Jennifer Morgue takes the reader on a wild adventure through the worlds of Lovecraft and Ian Fleming, non-Euclidian mathematics and computer hackerdom — sort of like Austin Powers, only more squamous and rugose — with fast cars and faster women.

(this sexy thing is John Picacio's cover for the SFBC omnibus of the first two novels, btw)

According to the faq on Stross's site, a third Laundry novel, The Fuller Memorandum, is due over the horizon, possibly in 2010. He has this to say about it:
Newly married and looking for a quiet life, Bob Howard thinks that a spell working in the Laundry's secret archives and catching up on the filing is just the ticket. But when his boss Angleton falls under suspicion and a top secret dossier goes missing, Bob is determined to get to the bottom of a historical puzzle: what was in the missing Fuller memorandum, and why are all the people who knew dying ...?
And I've just this very minute (!) learned that there is a new Laundry story I've missed, "Down on the Farm," which is available freely online at

Okay, so now I know what I'll be reading on my walk today...

Anyway, back to the Laundry. It's eventually revealed that the Laundry was originally Department Q of SOE, or Special Operations Executive, before being spun off as a separate black organization in 1945. As it happens, Department Q was a real department of the SOE during the 1940s, concerned with obtaining through clandestine methods all sorts of equipment, arms, and explosives for SIS operations.

Longtime readers of the Ramble may recall me mentioning the Laundry novels before, back when I was finishing up The Jennifer Morgue, the second in the series. There are many points of similarity between Stross's Laundry and my own MI8--their shared origins in the wartime SOE, the involvement of Turing, and their opposition by the Ahnenerbe being only the most obvious examples--and if I'd read The Atrocity Archive before starting work on my own MI8 stories I'd probably have just chucked the whole thing and gone off to work on something else. But I hadn't, so I didn't, and I stuck with them.

As I said in 2006, after finishing The Jennifer Morgue, "I like my own little occult spies too much to cut them loose, so they stay in the picture. But I don't kid myself that they're anywhere near as clever as Bob Howard and his crew at the Laundry. I'm reminded of Thomas Pynchon including a note in Gravity's Rainbow exhorting readers to check out Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo if they want to learn about African-American secret societies. I don't think I'd go quite as far as to put a foot note in End of the Century [I didn't, as it happens], but trust me when I say that if you want to read about occult secret agents, Charles Stross is the guy to go to."

I've seldom had as much fun reading in adult life as I had with the two Laundry novels. (And while I wouldn't dream of second-guessing another writer, if I were a betting man I'd wager than Stross had more fun writing them than he did on other stories.) Relentlessly clever, perfectly pitched, and more fun than you can shake a stick at. Highly, highly recommended.


A very interesting author who writes a gripping tale. Imaginative and compelling and woven together with a literary magic. I find his work easy to read and hard to put down. If you enjoy books of this genre I would also recommend, if I may, The Dark Cup, by Dale Osborne (; Perhaps not quite the same caliber, but equally as interesting.
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