The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross
Authors are entirely human (unless they are AIs who’ve broken through into the fiction business) and, as is only natural, tend to get caught up in their own interests and obsessions. So when we go back to the start of the Laundry Files series, Charles Stross thought it was a wicked cool idea to take a Lovecraftian theme and wrap in into a pastiche format. Ignoring the shorter contributions, this worked rather well with the fairly generic style of Len Deighton for The Atrocity Archives but was, to my mind, a dismal failure with Ian Fleming when the joke proved repetitively interminable in The Jennifer Morgue. I think the series got back on track with The Fuller Memorandum because, although Stross claimed it was a pastiche of Anthony Price, it was nothing like any of Price’s novels. More to the point, even if it had been, only geriatrics like me have read and loved Price. So few people read him now, no-one would have known whether it was a reasonable approximation of the style. In other words, despite protestations to the contrary, Stross wrote an amusing Lovecraftian book. With the fourth book now out and titled The Apocalypse Codex (Penguin/Berkley, 2012), he’s again indulging in thematic pastiche. This time, we’re in Peter O’Donnell territory. Frankly, I haven’t read a Modesty Blaise book in more than forty years and wouldn’t want to read one today. I found them terrible. What was quick and amusing as a comic strip died when it was translated into prose. So here Stross introduces a strong, but occasionally vulnerable, woman to put up alongside the doughty Laundryman.
Who’s this woman, then? Well, as in the originals, she has a vaguely Greek background and, having wandered around Europe, ends up a British national. Of course, there’s the required trusty sidekick as well. Like Willy Gavin, he’s tough, has throwing knives, and is not at all frustrated in a strictly platonic relationship with the Mam’selle. Having given up the life of crime, they’re recruited into MI6 by Sir Gerald Tarrant as external assets which is where this novel takes up the thread.
The good news is the more serious tone of the novel. Although I’m not against the idea of an author introducing a general air of levity into “end of the world” scenarios — that Douglas Adam chap was moderately successful in getting a laugh out of the destruction of the Earth — there comes a point when the arrival of one or more of the Great Old Ones has to become more threatening given the likely loss of amenity around the planet. Indeed, the plot of this novel assumes the arriving being will be a little peckish and need to have a light snack to build up its strength. That’s why this cult has been planning for so long and has developed the power to ring fence several million people into an outdoor eating area otherwise called Colorado. So although there’s some of the mild satire on civil service speak and organisational culture, the primary focus is on Lovecraftian matters with the sidekick and the televangelist being Deep One hybrids.
In line with the slightly darker themes featuring baby production facilities and parasitical infections, there’s also more intelligence in the discussion of organisations and how best to structure them to get the best results. Although this particular version of reality is fictional, I applaud Stross for taking the time to explain the point of his satire on the civil service mentality. Too often, jobs have been mechanised so that anyone can do them with only a minimal level of intelligence and experience. This compensates for the systemic failures of the education service to spit out sufficient numbers of clever people to run government “properly”. With jobs defined by lowest common denominator ability requirements, administration can continue, with policy overseen by a small cadre of more knowledgeable individuals. The point of the institutional speak is to hide the differences in intellectual ability. With everyone speaking in the same preprogrammed way, it takes marginally longer for the general public to work out whether they are talking with a high-powered Mandarin or lowly clerk.
Put all this together and The Apocalypse Codex is the best of the series so far. It has a better balance between the characters with the series character, Bob Howard, sharing the point-of-view limelight with our new female heroine (and sidekick). The Lovecraftian threat is escalating nicely with portal technology allowing entry into a different dimension for on-site conflict. The evolution also extends to our view of the British Government and we see more clearly where Bob’s career path may be leading — if not into middle management. The good final piece of news is this can more obviously be read as a stand-alone. Although knowing the background from the previous novels and short stories would enhance your enjoyment, everything you need to understand this is thoughtfully included.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.