the Little Red Reviewer

The Atrocity Archives (a Laundry Files novel) by Charles Stross

Posted on: April 26, 2013

atrocityStrossThe Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross (The Laundry Files, book 1, also includes the novella The Concrete Jungle)

published in 2004

where I got it: purchased new (not in 2004. closer to last year)











finally! I have finally read the first Laundry novel!  and learned two things: You can read these out of order and do just fine, and the first book is decent but not the best in the series. For fans of Stross’s Laundry series this is a must-read, and if you’re not a fan, start with the 2nd or 3rd  book in the series, work your way backwards, and then you’ll be a fan, so you’ll want to read it.

Bob Howard is not a hero. He doesn’t kick ass, he can’t keep his roommates from trashing the house, and cops are embarrassed if they have to work with him. Bob is your average IT professional, a super nerdy guy who spends his days checking the network for viruses, keeping spam out your e-mail, and avoiding his supervisor, which is totally okay because she’s an absolute bitch.  Bob’s problem is that he’s way too good at what he does. So good in fact, that he can’t help but get involved when things go to shit, especially when the jackass from accounting gets himself possessed by a Lovecraftian intelligence during a training class.

IT jokes? Lovecraftian horrors?  If you’re not into IT or Cthulhu, don’t worry, there’s no experience needed to enjoy The Laundry.  Everything is explained. For god sakes, these books are how I got into Cthulhu mythos in the first place! and what isn’t explained in easy to understand language is glossed over in purposely arcane and sometimes sarcastic infodumps.

The Atrocity Archives is where it all begins (well,  not where it all begins, but you know what I mean). We learn how Bob got “invited” to join the Laundry, his bachelor-esque life before Mo, and how many mainline supervisors he had to piss off to end up in Angleton’s office.  It looks like fantasy horror, but The Laundry books are really hard scifi thrillers. Mathematics are the name of the game here, where changing a variable gets you from pie are squared to Azathoth coming up your bathtub drain. If you’re the scientist who hits on which variable and what to change it to, you can expect a call from The Laundry.

The Laundry is a standard bureaucratic government agency, with policies and procedures for everything from requisitioning a SWAT team to reporting lost paperclips.  I certainly don’t work for a government agency, but my current employer has gone through a lot of growing pains lately, and a 20% increase in staff (yay! more jobs!) has created a ten-fold increase in reports, manuals, trainings, and conference calls. I found all of Bob’s bitchings about timekeeping reports and time wasting procedures to be especially entertaining and biting.  This is a guy who knows what I go through on a daily basis! (You’ll know my boss has discovered this blog if I start blogging next week about being suddenly unemployed.)

On his first field operation, Bob knows only that his contact in California is someone named “Mo”.  She turns out to be a beautiful expat college professor, and his job is to help her get home to the UK.  Before he knows it, he’s in the hospital with a goose egg on his head and she’s been kidnapped by Neonazi weirdos. Turns out they aren’t neonazis, they’re the real thing. Having escaped through a portal, they’ve been living in a parallel universe. If by living, you mean have already had their brains sucked out  by alien intelligences who want nothing more than another taste. A whole planet full of that taste.  Bob’s got to convince the heavy hitters that he knows what he’s doing, and get Mo back in one piece, and process his time sheets, and fix that damn e-mail bug, and help that idiot from accounting who crashes his system nearly every time he touches his damn desktop. All in a days work, right?

And this is classic Stross, a zillion and one cool ideas packed into every sentence, dark humor, and biting comments on pop culture.  I know I missed half the jokes, and I was still laughing my head off. Books about cthonic horrors from parallel universes really shouldn’t be this funny, you know? The foreward to this printing talks about the “Stross sentence” – it feels like a run-on sentence but isn’t, and ends with black humor or deep sarcasm. Anyone can write a functioning run-on sentence, but only Stross writes ‘em like this.

You’ve probably already figured it out, but The Atrocity Archives is a roller coaster going about a hundred miles an hour. It’s one helluva fun ride, but I spent so much energy enjoying the in-jokes and being proud of myself for getting the Kafka joke that I kept getting distracted from the actual plot. There’s a point where over the top quantities of wittiness offer diminishing returns. I’m not saying this is a bad book, it’s insanely fun. It’s just not my favorite Laundry book, (I think my favorite is The Jennifer Morgue, which is book 2)  I’m just not ADHD enough to keep up with everything Stross is throwing at me.

If you’ve got the same Ace paperback printing I’ve got, then your version also has the Hugo Award winning novella, The Concrete Jungle.  Taking place a few months after The Atrocity Archives, Bob yet again, gets to save the world from horrors from a parallel world, and one good and truly pissed of bureaucrat.  The novella has some absopositively fucking brilliant background about how to infect a person with Gorgonism (duh, turning them into a Gorgon. and you remember Medusa’s special power, don’t you?  The conceit is that Gorgons ended up as part of mythology because they were real creatures that had gotten to our world through rips in spacetime, killed a bunch of people, and then were destroyed. Pretty awesome, yeah?).

The Atrocity Archives delves deep into worldbuilding, characterization, and really getting you to invest in what’s happening in Bob’s life.  You really want him to succeed, you really want Mo to not be dead or possessed.  But there was just so much going on, my gaze was pulled in so many directions at once, I felt like I needed a breather while reading to catch my breath. Again, I’m not dissing the book, but it’s not something you can read in one sitting, the sheer quantity of information and wit would start to fry my brain after about 50 pages. Even though The Concrete Jungle takes place after the main novel (and offers a major, horrible spoiler),  I almost wish it had been the opener instead of the closer. The Concrete Jungle is smoother and easier to read, making it a better appetizer than a chaser.

So, how to decide if this series is for you?  Do you like wryly dark humor? do you like a huge variety of in-jokes from pop culture to esoterica to bitching about work? Did you like the BBC show Torchwood?  Do you enjoy the intersection of science and mythology? If you answered yes to at least one of those questions, go get yourself a Laundry Files novel.

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6 Responses to "The Atrocity Archives (a Laundry Files novel) by Charles Stross"

I enjoyed the Atrocity Archives, but hated the Concrete Jungle. After this I went on to buy maybe four of Stross’ other works, and read two, but I felt his story-craft was lacking. I enjoyed reading what he wrote, but the idea of the narrative broke down for me. Probably the most interesting thing about the Archives, to me, was how often Stross gets questions about the idea of it, and how close it is to the Call of Cthulhu RPG campaign book “Delta Green” which is how I was introduced to Stross.

Its an odd coincidence that you posted this review, as I was reading something that feels like the Stross’ writing, but isn’t: “John Dies at the End” by David Wong, which I was introduced to by the movie. Like the Atrocity Archives, it is “Lovecraftian” (which these days covers a lot of ground and sometimes misused) and written with a similar sense of humour, stylish prose as Stross likes to use. I’m not sure I’m recommending it, as much as pointing out its existence to you.

Anyway, toodly-pop an’ all.


hmm… that David Wong sounds interesting, if only for being “Strossian”. I’ll see if the library has it.

Have you read any of any of Stross’s Merchant Princes stuff?


hmm… that David Wong sounds interesting, if only for being “Strossian”. I’ll see if the library has it.

Have you read any of any of Stross’s Merchant Princes stuff?


If you can, I’d give the first few pages a look over and see if you like the style. Style it has in droves, substance I’m not quite sure yet, but its a fun read, even after watching the movie twice.

re: Merchant Princes, no, none of them, I’ve afraid. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. In fact, I hadn’t heard of them until I began following Stross’ blog, which I’ve found a lot more satisfying than his books in some ways. He seems to be doing very well with them, since there’s about 10 of them, so someone must like them. Sorry I can’t help you with that.


ok, let me get this right; to be an author you have to invest (correct me if I’m wrong here) hundreds, nay, thousands of hours, nursing your little baby to fruition, only to tout said manuscript around jaded publishers until finally getting published. THEN, and this is important I think, you can’t actually make a living at it until you take the risk of giving up your main source of income to write the next book (because, let’s face it, writing doesn’t pay for many people).


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