Have you noticed that there are still a lot of vampires around? In Fantasy fiction, TV series and films that is; not real life (I hope). So, it’s rather refreashing to read a novel which opens with an intelligent woman arguing very convincingly that vampires cannot exist. She’s wrong though… `The Rhesus Chart’ by Charles Stross is the latest in a series of novels, novellas and short stories about computer-scientist turned necromancer, Bob Howard. They are collectively known as `The Laundry Files’. Currently, `The Rhesus Chart’ (2014) is only available in hardback or as an ebook. For the last few weeks I’ve been recommending books that are suitable for both children and adults, but this series (with its high levels of violence, sex and strong language) is definitely `Adults only’.

You don’t need to have read any of the previous Laundry Files to understand the background to `The Rhesus Chart’.  Stross’s cynical narrator Bob will soon bring you up to speed on Computational Demonology for Dummies-`the summoning and binding to service of unspeakable horrors from other dimensions, by means of mathematical tools’. Bob discovered the hard way that `Magic is a branch of applied mathematics’  when his master’s thesis `nearly summoned up an undead alien god in Wolverhampton’. Bob was co-opted to work for `the Laundry’ a very secret department of the British government which deals with occult and magical threats. He learned that we are all living in a hostile multiverse and that the time is coming (Codename – Case Nightmare Green) when alien beings are likely to break through and destroy our world – unless the Laundry, and its American equivalent the Black Chamber, can stop them.

After getting bored with fixing people’s computers, Bob made the mistake of volunteering for active service. One scary thing led to another and now Bob is an apprentice Eater of Souls, working for combat-sorcerer Angleton. He’s also married to a part-time occult assassin and thinking of getting a cat. `The Rhesus Chart’ starts with a typical evening at the Laundry when an IT manager accidentally summons up a tentacled horror. To deal with it, Bob and Angleton have to sacrifice some of the Residual Human Resources (zombies) who work the nightshift. Bob is glad to get back to his current research project but that research leads him to discover a nest of vampires working for a merchant bank (just when you thought that bankers couldn’t get any worse). Embarrassingly, one of the vampires is Bob’s toxic ex-girlfriend, Mhari. It should be the Laundry’s job to deal with these vampires but hardly anyone in the organization is willing to believe that such creatures exist. Bob realizes that something is very wrong and starts to look for`a blood-sucking mole’ at the heart of the Laundry…

The Laundry Files are hard to pin down to just one genre. Are they Computer-Science Fiction, Horror or Spy Thrillers? All of the above but I’m going with `if it has magic in, it counts as Fantasy’. Mainly Urban Fantasy. When Bob does venture into the countryside there is usually something very nasty indeed in the woodshed. In an interesting afterword to the first Laundry Files novel (`The Atrocity Archives’, 2001) Stross names his two main influences as the Horror stories of H.P.Lovecraft (whose purple prose he mimics to perfection in `Equoid ‘) and the Cold War spy novels of Len Deighton. He also throws in some spot-on satire on the idiocies of traditional bureaucracy and modern management fads.  Think `At the Mountains of Madness’ meets `The Office’ and you’ll get the picture.

I don’t usually like books that are spattered with swear-words but if I worked for the Laundry I would probably swear a lot too. Bob gets to use a bizarre mix of ancient magic and new technology but his life as a spook is far from glamorous. `The Laundry is about procedures and teamwork and protocols.’ Too much of Bob’s time is spent filling in forms in triplicate, dealing with daft Health and Safety Directives and sitting in pointless committee meetings. Fighting eldritch horrors with a basilisk-gun may be dangerous but being harrassed about his time-sheets and expenses claims is even worse. Think your boss is bad? Bob has to cope with lethal team-leaders, Senior Auditors who can compel him to speak the exact truth, and a demonic line-boss who is `an equal opportunities executioner’ prone to turning his enemies into executive toys. Someone I know who works in a department not entirely dissimilar to the Laundry says that Stross has an uncanny grasp of how such organizations function – or misfunction.

Bob is a likeable everyman character who tells his own story with self-deprecating humour. He starts as an irresponsible young hacker but has to grow up fast when he learns that his most paranoid nightmares are true. The universe really is out to get him – and everyone else. Bob is absorbed by the establishment but retains enough of his trickster personality to kick against authority. He doesn’t, in the words of a famous slogan spoofed in this novel, `Keep Calm and Carry On’. He usually becomes very upset indeed and then carries on and gets the dangerous jobs done. In `The Rhesus Chart’, Bob is paired-up with a nice moped-riding vicar who has just been conscripted by the Laundry. Yes, Stross is capable of setting up an entire subplot so that he can use the classic line `More tea, vicar’ to maximum comic effect. Yet in this same novel there are poignant passages about Bob and his wife trying to cling on to a normal home life, even though they know that people who constantly deal with the monstrous are liable to become  monsters themselves.

Stross is a very funny writer but he deserves to be taken as seriously as more obviously `literary’ SF authors, such as David Mitchell or the late great Iain M.Banks. His high-tech magic is convincing because few people have a better grasp of the culture of computer-programming and hacking. Stross also knows a great deal about 20th century politics and the history of the British and American intelligence services and he’s very well read in Folklore and Horror. All these things are sucked into the fictional world of the Laundry Files and come out strangely transformed. Underlying Bob’s amusing narrative are rage and anguish about the dreadful things that humans do to each other in the real world. The price of laughing at Bob’s jokes is to feel a little of that anguish. Until two weeks time…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

 

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