The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

Charles Stross’ Laundry series began as pastiches of spy novels, with Lovecraftian beings of endless horror substituting for cat-stroking megalomaniacs as the bad guys. Running a close second in the bad guy scheme of things are the higher reaches of the spy organization, partly because the third well of inspiration for the series is The Office, but partly also because some of the higher-ups are not actually human.

The series posits that magic is essentially a very specific form of advanced mathematics, with certain theorems acting as gateways to otherwise inaccessible but very real dimensions. A corollary of that approach is that devices that can perform vast amounts of calculations are effectively magical as well. A further premise of the series is that the performance of magic to bridge dimensions weakens the borders between them. With computing power increasing dramatically over the course of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the barriers between good old earth and gibbering horrors from beyond the walls of space are becoming very permeable indeed.

Nightmare Stacks

One of the key themes of the early books in the series is keeping secrets secret. This is part of the espionage genre, made more important by the cosmic scale of the threats faced by the protagonists. If Downing Street doesn’t want people to know what the KGB gets up to on British territory, Number 10 really doesn’t want to explain that there is a whole section of the intelligence apparatus devoted to keeping brain-eating horrors away from the populace. Mad cow disease was bad enough. And for the first several books that works well: main protagonist Bob Howard learns more about the inhuman threats in the multiverse, fights off baddies of various stripes (and tentacles), develops his abilities as a mathematical sorcerer, and rises a bit through the ranks, which makes him subject to the dark arts of HR and occasionally draws the terrifying scrutiny of an auditor. The cloak and dagger and theorem escapades stay under the cloak of secrecy.

By 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, and despite practice at deception, magical enhancement, and a good story about superheroes, HM Government is hard pressed to keep the truth under wraps. The Nightmare Stacks tears that cloak to shreds. The series has also been slowly building toward several possibly apocalyptic scenarios; a key question the Laundry personnel face in The Nightmare Stacks is which one seems to be playing out already, and whether it is only one apocalypse at a time, or perhaps several. There’s a reference early on to the Ghostbusters Twinkie, and it’s entirely fitting. The book is action-packed almost from the very beginning, and the Things that have gone bump in the night have come out to play by the light of day.

Bob Howard, the narrator of the first five Laundry books, stays off-stage for this one. The main protagonist, and sometimes first-person narrator, of The Nightmare Stacks is Alex Schwartz, one-time high-flying banker, now a vampire sent to the provinces to ready a backup headquarters for the Laundry in case things get too real in London. Needless to say, the provinces do not stay sleepy.

Schwartz works well as a protagonist, because the setting as a whole functions better when it’s seen through the eyes of someone who only glimpses part of what is really going on. Bob has seen so much now that he’s ascended to the higher ranks of the Laundry; he is senior enough for mentions of his name to strike fear in Schwartz. Limited knowledge by the protagonist also gives more room for the humor in the series, one of its special pleasures, to come through. As in a meet-the-parents dinner party:

“Huh,” Sarah [Schwartz’s sister] smiles, not entirely nicely. Mack [Sarah’s significant other], for her part, is as impassive as a poker player, clearly unwilling to contribute further to what promises to be a family reunion that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. “How did you get here, then?”
“Oh, very easily!” Cassie [Schwartz’s significant other] giggles: “Alex stole a Nazi half-track motorcycle from a mad scientist he knows through work! It was most exciting!”
Alex sighs. “I did not steal Ilsa,” he explains before Dad can throw a drunken hissy fit at the hint of impropriety: “Brains [a coworker] lent her to me for the evening.”
Sarah stares at him. “I’ll swear someone said ‘Nazi half-track motorcycle.’ And ‘mad scientist.’ I must be hallucinating, right? Tell me I’m hallucinating.”
Mack opens her mouth, then pauses thoughtfully for a moment. “Would it happen to be an NSU Kettenrad?” she asks. “If so, was it wartime or postwar manufacture?”
Mum clears her throat diplomatically. “Alex, your father is a bit sleepy. Would you do the honors and carve the brisket?”
“Wartime,” Alex says, his feet carrying him on autopilot towards the sideboard and the dish with the carving set. “How did you know?”
“I made a model of one when I was a kid. The Tamiya 1:35 scale precision one.” Mack sounds just slightly wistful. “I used to make lots of models before I grew out of it. It was something I could do by myself and I was good at it.”
“Half-track,” mutters Sarah. “So you’re driving?”
“Yup.” Alex picks up the carving fork and pokes the brisket hesitantly. As usual for Mum, it’s slightly overcooked but just the right side of burned. “So I’m not drinking.” He can feel eyeballs drilling into his back like gimlets. “I’m not making this up,” he protests defensively, “it’s parked outside!”
“I believe you,” Sarah says after a moment, as Cassie chirps: “It’s all true! Even the mad scientist!”
“He’s not mad, he just works in Technical Operations,” Alex says as he begins to carve. After the first slice: “Well, he’s not very mad.” After the second slice: “By Tech Ops standards.”
“What does your mad scientist friend do for your employers, dear?” his mother asks.
“He does quality assurance testing on death rays. … Also, he repairs stuff for a hobby. Like the Kettenkrad. He’s working on a hovercraft right now.”
“My hovercraft is full of eels,” Dad slurs … (p. 196–97)

This kind of madcap glee crashes hard into the incidents about to take place outside of the dinner party. Stross carries off both levels with aplomb, neither shorting the seriousness of interdimensional war, nor missing the inevitable absurdities of bureaucracies and the humans who fill them. By the end, many of the premises of the series are smoking ruins in northern England. The Laundry’s world will never be the same.

The Nightmare Stacks is the seventh book in the Laundry series, and seriously not a good place to start. Begin at the beginning; the end will be here soon enough. The penultimate Laundry book, The Delirium Brief, is scheduled for June 2017.

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  1. […] to center stage. As you know, 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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