Thursday, 1 July 2010

‘The Fuller Memorandum’ – Charles Stross (Orbit)


These days, if I’m faced with an Urban Fantasy that’s really a thin excuse for inter-species relationship angst then you will find taking one step back from the aforementioned book and looking at something else instead. I feel like I’m reading the same story over and over again when what I’m really after is to read something different. Having said all of that though, Laurell K. Hamilton’s two latest books have somehow found their way into the reading pile and I’m tempted to give them a go to see if the plot has made an appearance at all (let alone advanced in any meaningful way)...

Anyway... While a certain type of Urban Fantasy leaves me cold right now there is still stuff out there that will get me reading. Urban Fantasy that actually takes the urban setting and makes it something more than just a backdrop for various relationships to play out against. Urban Fantasy where plot is paramount. Urban Fantasy where the horrors in the shadows actually mean something...
If you go back through the blog you’ll see plenty of examples of this and I’m thinking Mieville, Carey and Griffin in particular. Charles Stross has also been trying his hand at this breed of Urban Fantasy and doing rather nicely thank you very much. His latest instalment of tales from the ‘Laundry’ (a top secret government agency dealing with extra-dimensional threats) is Urban Fantasy done just the way I like it...

Working for the Laundry means that Bob Howard’s work life can encompass anything from routine server upgrades to facing down tentacle monstrosities from other dimensions. And that’s not including the more arcane elements of the managerial structure that he must negotiate if he’s to actually get anything done! It may be an extreme way to deal with boredom in the workplace but the pension scheme is supposed to be very good and there is some job satisfaction... until the day a zombie assassin follows Bob home and tries to kill both him and his wife. That’s when things start to get nasty...
A top secret dossier has gone missing, Bob’s boss is implicated and that means Bob is under suspicion as well. Just what is in the Fuller Memorandum and why are Russian Intelligence suddenly being so helpful? At least Bob knows where he stands with the cult that wants to use the information in the Fuller Memorandum to unleash something that would make hell on Earth look positively heavenly. Even if Bob survives what’s coming, there’s even worse to come on the horizon...

Charles Stross strikes me as a man who likes his concepts. He doesn’t just like them either, he loves them. What you get as a result is a book that is brimming over with energy as Stross is clearly writing about something that he loves. Whether it’s the concepts themselves or the genres that he is riffing on (Cold War spy novels for a start) Stross is absolutely having the time of his life. This enjoyment pours off the page and is infectious; you can’t help enjoying yourself either and the pace of the book carries you along at a fair old rate.

Stross really likes to talk about the concepts that he has either come up with or expanded upon. While this goes a long way towards fleshing out the background of the novel (and what a background it is, all very plausible but very dark at the same time) it is also a bit of a barrier that stops ‘The Fuller Memorandum’ from being as accessible as it perhaps could be.
The impression I got was that while Stross likes to talk up his concepts he sometimes forgets who he’s actually talking to. I’m not the most technical or mathematically minded of people and there were occasions where what was being said went right over my head. I’m not for one second saying that the book (or any book for that matter) should be dumbed down but a level playing field, and there is a difference, would mean enjoyment for more readers. Maybe it was just me (and I’m happy to admit to that) but it felt like Stross was casting his net a little too narrowly, going for the people who get a kick out of the science and leaving fans of the fantasy to fend for themselves...

It was good then that there was a lot to the fantastical elements as well as the story itself; certainly enough to get me through some of the more awkward moments that I just mentioned.
Although he has a habit of repeating himself a little too much, Stross makes it perfectly clear just what is at stake for Bob Howard and the other Laundry operatives if they fail in their mission. Because of this everything takes on a deeper meaning and adds to the urgency building up in the plot. This urgency sets a crisp pace for the book and maintains it right up until the death. The fate of the world hanging in the balance can sometimes be a tired old cliché but Stross gives it fresh legs and has his readers chasing gamely after it! Stross also proves to have some masterful moments up his sleeve in terms of drawing out the suspense and then hitting his reader with something that totally justifies the wait. The ‘Amsterdam Incident’ is billed as something truly horrible... and it is (painting ‘black magic’ in a darker shade of black here).

The story itself is as full of twists, turns and surprises as its two predecessors and is a joy to follow. While one mystery is solved surprisingly easily, I was left wondering if this was a deliberate move on Stross’ part to draw attention away from the resolution of another mystery. I should have seen it coming but somehow didn’t.

Stross paints a dark yet compelling picture of a war that would give us nightmares if we had any real idea of what was going in within the shadows. He doesn’t want us to have those nightmares though so he dresses it all up in the kind of typically British bureaucracy that we all hate yet secretly have a soft spot for. The end result is part smirk inducing satire and part chilling horror; a mixture that (despite some awkward moments) had me chuckling and shivering all at the same time. The ending of ‘The Fuller Memorandum’ could be one that either closes things off or leaves them open for another book. I’m very much hoping for the latter.

Nine out of Ten

2 comments:

greatalexanders said...

I think Stross wants to do another Laundry novel, judging by the last paragraph of this post, which is of course good news for us all!

Mieneke said...

I finally got my review of the copy I won in your giveaway up on my blog if you'd like to read it :)

I completely agree with your review though!