The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

Charles Stross’ Laundry series began as an unholy mashup of H.P. Lovecraft, The Office, and spy thrillers, told through the eyes of an initially low-level functionary. Bob, as you know, is Bob Howard, a systems administrator who stumbles onto the secret congruencies between higher math and applied magic. Paraphrasing Clarke’s Third Law, in the world of the Laundry sufficiently advanced mathematics are indistinguishable from magic. In fact, working sorcery is a branch of math and computation. For most of human history, this has meant that it was accessible only to a select few, but as both math and computation became first commonplace and then ubiquitous over the course of the twentieth century, sorcery was first institutionalized and then bureaucratized. In the books’ backstory, this parallels the trajectory of intelligence agencies in our timeline.

There are a few twists: human consciousnesses are not the only ones out there in the multiverse, most of the others are incomprehensible or hostile or both. Bob discovers this particular set of truths by accident, and he is swept up into the organizations that modern states have evolved to deal with supernatural threats. He is perforce inducted into the Laundry, a branch of British intelligence that exists to clean up the particularly nasty problems caused by creepy-crawlies, unlicensed demons, and the humans who want to put them to use for their own ends.

The genius of the first few novels in the series is positing that the Laundry is not just home to people who periodically save the world but also a normally dysfunctional workplace, with secrecy and sorcery poured over the top for extra absurd flavoring. Tech people, HR, executives — all of these and more get sent up in the course of Bob’s forays deeper into the worlds of magic and clandestine adventure. Stross’ manic glee adds to the fun.

By The Annihilation Score, the sixth novel in the series, Stross has also made it clear that he’s after more than just a rollicking set of adventures in which nothing fundamental changes. Bob is gaining experience, advancing within the Laundry, becoming privy to more knowledge and greater command of supernatural resources. The world is also changing around him: ubiquitous computing means that more and more people are discovering the principles of practical magic. On the one hand, this is beginning to be more than the Laundry’s intake mechanisms can handle. On the other, it’s weakening the barriers between the earth as we know it and dimensions containing nameless horrors that want nothing more than to rend other consciousnesses into their constituent parts. Apart from the overall arc of the series, Stross has also played with mythological creatures to see how they might fit with the Laundry’s supernatural background; zombies and vampires have already joined the Lovecraftian nasties in the Laundryverse. The Annihilation Score is also different from the rest of the series to date because it is told from the point of view of Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, Bob’s wife and colleague.

The Annihilation Score does what it says on the tin: fast-paced adventure laced with both humor and horror, in a world that’s not quite our own. The increasing permeability between the mundane and arcane worlds of the novel mean that ordinary people start finding themselves with supernatural powers. In the book, this manifests as their thinking of themselves as superheroes in the comic-book style. The Laundry and the rest of the British public sector work, not always in close coordination, to both channel the emerging superheroes and defeat the supervillains with minimal damage to the kingdom.

The office humor hasn’t left the series either. This is from a late-night debriefing:

I really don’t feel up to another grilling today, but needs must. I slowly walk towards the inevitable reckoning. …
They’ve brought food. My nostrils flare: the odor of pizza drifts from a stack of square boxes in the middle of the table. They’ve even brought drinks, or at least bottles of mineral water. I’m instantly on edge, scenting a setup. “I expect you’ve missed your tea,” says the Mouse Lady from the Audit Committee. … “Do sit down, ladies.” Her attempt at emulating domestic hospitality is a washout, I’m afraid: she’s even less good at doing motherly than I am. …
My stomach rumbles and the pizza smells wonderful, but I don’t feel right about dining at this table.
“Please go ahead and eat,” Mouse Woman tells me, a note of iron creeping into her voice. “This meeting is going to take some time.”
Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. … I pull the nearest box towards me and open it. Pineapple and mushroom and ham: doubly damned I am.

Making Mo the narrator lets Stross’ audience see the world of the Laundry from a different perspective. It also opens up the series, making it less exclusively Bob’s story. She is still recognizably a Stross protagonist, and I would have expected to see more about math and music in a story told by someone who holds a doctorate in the former and is a professional-level performer in the latter. I suppose there’s an argument that the press of the novel’s events prevents these aspects of Mo’s character coming to the foreground, but I’m not sure I buy that. A friend who read The Annihilation Score at the same time I did said that Mo’s office and daily choices — about dress, about conversation, for example — rang true with her own experience of the working world.

The sixth book in the set probably isn’t the best place to start. Our epigraph would be good advice, except that the end of the Laundry not only isn’t here, it isn’t even near yet. The seventh book is due out in 2016, and one or two more are likely to follow before Stross gets to the end of the world, er, series. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.

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  1. […] the end of the previous volume in the series, The Annihilation Score, the threads of that cloak are starting to unravel. There is a major incident in the Albert Hall, […]

  2. […] Bob had been out of the spotlight for most of the last two books — The Nightmare Stacks and The Annihilation Score — for various plot and structural […]

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