The Annihilation Score, by Charlie Stross
Review time – The Annihilation Score (Laundry Files #6, Charlie Stross).
So, I just finished the newly-published Laundry novel.
It is, of course, a Charlie Stross novel. So this will be a pretty detailed review. (It’s not often you get to use the phrase “gibbering polynomial horror”!)
My one-line verdict would be, The Annihilation Score is interesting, ambitious and also a bit flawed.
More under the cut…
The Laundry is the branch of the intelligence services that deals with supernatural/occult/extra-dimensional threats to the security of the United Kingdom. The Laundryverse is a pseudo-Lovecraftian one; it mostly works like and looks like ours, but in the neighbouring realms of pure mathematics there are all sorts of gibbering polynomial horrors that start taking an interest when certain sorts of theorem are considered. Think of it this way: when there are too many shadows darkening the walls of Plato’s cave, they’re the ones who get out the flashlights. And that’s generally very bad for whoever the shadow belongs to.
And of course in the eartly 21st Century the Earth is overloaded both with organic neural networks (seven billion human brains) and also an entire planetwide explosion of high-performance computing power. The Earth’s thaumic signature is enormous and getting bigger, and it’s drawing in everything eldritch for a thousand parsecs in every direction (including the ones beyond the X, Y and Z axes). Basically, the much-feared CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is *definitely* under way, and the chaos is starting to ramp up. And this is expected to carry on until at least the mid-22nd Century – assuming there is anything left to carry on by then, of course. The gibbering horrors hunger, and here’s a planet with lots and lots of juicy brains…
At the start of the novel, things are still relatively normal. The lights are still on, people are still going to work, food is still reaching the table and so forth. But, there are growing hints of trouble. The UK is currently undergoing an outbreak of so-called ‘superheroes’ – people who abruptly start manifesting talents and powers well outside the statistical distribution of normal human abilities. Some of them are outside of the boundaries of generally-accepted physics, as well.
The media, the press and the public have no idea what’s going on, except that it’s downright weird. The Laundry know exactly what’s happening – as the stars become right during the opening phases of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, an exponential ramping of magickal ability is fully expected to be observed. And that’s exactly what’s happening. The public are intrepreting this through a superhero lens as that’s what popular culture has conditioned them to expect. Only, the absolute LAST thing that law enforcement or the public sector want to see are over-powered private individuals, so needless to say, the Powers That Be want this silliness squelched as quickly as possible.
This novel focuses on Mo – Dr. Dominique O’Brien, wife of the previous series protagonist Bob Howard. At the start of the novel, she’s out at a top-secret diplomatic event on a disused oil platform in the North Sea. It’s top secret because it’s the one where the permanent members of the UN Security Council are renogiating the Benthic Treaty with the appointed representatives of BLUE HADES. (BH are a sufficiently-advanced Elder Species, who inhabit the abyssal plains of the Earth’s oceans, and have been here for at least two billion years. Getting the Benthic negotiations right is rather important, because if BH get irritated, they’re quite capable of over-topping the continents with megatsunamis. And being obligate ocean-dwellers, they have no use at all for the Earth’s landmass. [fn.1]) Fortunately the negotiations are actually going rather well this time, and BH are being surprisingly co-operative. It seems that CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN has them worried too (or possibly they think they can put the land-dwelling mammals between them and whatever protean horrors waft in from the various Outer Darknesses).
Anyway, Mo gets an unexpected phone call, ordering her back to the mainland. Pulled away from the negotiations, she arrives right in the middle of the aftermath of the events of the fifth novel. Needless to say, she quite-understandably flips out. Bob is in their house at the time, alone except for his pre-Mo ex-girlfriend Mhari. Mo doesn’t know the context at the time. She’s tired and stressed and it looks bad, and she’s Not Very Happy.
Unfortunately, she’s carrying Lecter the daemonic violin at the time, so the flip-out almost kills both Bob and Mhari. Fortunately, now that Bob actually *is* Eater-of-Souls, he’s also now a sufficiently-powerful necromancer that he can win a staredown with Lecter. When the dust settles on the row, the result is that Bob and Mo end up forced to separate. Bob and Mhari leave. Mo is left alone in the house with the cat.
With her marriage in tatters and her personal life falling apart, Mo tries to go to bed. Then she gets a work phone call about a superhero incident that’s just exploded in Trafalgar Square. Mo is apparently the only field-qualified agent available to the Laundry at short notice. (Everyone else is busy cleaning up the mess left behind at Dansey House by the climactic events of Book Five.)
Mo gets to Trafalgar Square and manages to contain the situation – unfortunately, she unwittingly does so right in front of a News 24 camera crew who are broadcasting live. And several thousand tourist-owned smartphones. With cameras, SD cards and 3G connections. Also, the Mayor of London is one of the personal witnesses to this particular outbreak. There is no hope whatsoever of covering this event up; the Masquerade has cracked.
The Laundry now has the mother of all public relations disasters on its hands, and Mo is stood right at Ground Zero.
The situation quickly escalates. In short order Mo finds herself dragged before no less a person than Jessica Greene [Fn. 3], the current Home Secretary, to explain what the hell is going on. Almost before Mo knows what’s going on, she finds she’s been kicked upstairs. As part of the Laundry’s damage-limitation strategy, Mo has to basically pull a functioning new government department out of her backside and have it up and running by Monday. Oh, and she has to prepare a report for the truly-ferocious Ms. Greene explaining just what exactly the Transhuman Policing Coordination Department is doing about the superhero problem. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they appear to have an actual supervillain to contend with, in the form of the mysterious Professor Freudstein…
Mo is about to have *a lot* of sleepless nights.
What I liked
First off, I’ve been wanting to see a bit more of BLUE HADES since the events of the “The Jennifer Morgue”. And Ramona Random did seem like a character with unused potential. So having more of both of those were both definite pluses.
Also, the Laundry series’s depiction of the British public sector is painfully apposite. It’s to the public sector what PhD Comics is to graduate study. If you’ve ever worked for a local or national government department, there’s lots of stuff in here that will have you wincing in sympathy. (One nitpick: there’s a scene where Mo is reviewing purchase orders, but she doesn’t run into any missing or inaccurate budget codes. That struck me as rather implausible. That said, it’s possible that Mhari might have dealt with them before they got to Mo’s desk.)
It’s also interesting that CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is definitely under way. And it’s happening as a sort of “boiled frog” scenario, rather than a “grenade lands in the living room”-type thing. It seems it will take the form of an escalating series of increasingly-paranormal events, which will make maintaining a functioning society harder and harder as they progress.
Another interesting, if bleak, aspect of the book is it’s look at just what high-powered jobs can do to your happiness. Mo and Bob’s marriage has essentially been destroyed by work-related pressures, some of them mundane and some of them less so. Both Bob and Mo are suffering with after-effects from what they’ve both been through. Throughout the book Mo keeps having flashbacks to what happened at Vakilabad and her feelings about Lecter are confused and toxic (for good reason!). Also, Mo’s nervous breakdown is drawn subtly and elegantly – you don’t realise it’s even happening at first, so it has exactly the insidious character that these things do. “Yes, I’m fine. Really, I’m fine. No, no, I’m not crying…”
Another interesting aspect is the sub-theme of very different people trying to work together for the common good. On the face of it, putting Mo, Ramona and Mhari in the same room is a recipe for disaster. However, the three of them manage to control their own personal issues and put together a very successful executive team. By the end of the book, Mhari and Mo have even achieved a fragile interpersonal détente. Key to this was them being completely honest about their own personal feelings, and taking those feelings seriously. This pleased me. All too often in the popular media we’re presented with depictions in which feelings are irrelevant and unimportant, which is utter rubbish. Seeing that meme challenged was good.
It was also interesting to see the issue of democratic accountability surface. In the previous books, the Laundry has been almost entirely a law unto itself, shooting things (and people), breaking and entering, hacking systems and so forth, without any obvious chain of accountability. What this book is all about, really, is questions over where exactly agencies like this stand with respect to the public order they supposedly protect. The question of who watches the watchers becomes a critical one in the book’s last act.
What was problematic
Unfortunately, The Annihilation Score has several weaker aspects.
The first is that it’s billed as a superhero novel. It isn’t. It’s actually a serious consideration of the ethics of policing and intelligence-gathering, and the potential contradiction they pose to a nominally-democratic society. To be honest, the superheroes barely matter. Busy Bee plays a small role in the denouement, and Mo’s new-found ability to go invisible proves somewhat useful, but other than that, they’re not important. In addition, well, to be honest, it felt fairly obvious that the author wasn’t very strongly familiar with the source material. The dark side of the superhero mythos has been covered before; there’s Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart books, or there’s the Watchman series, for instance. To be honest, the superhero stuff here felt rather weak. It was uncomfortably-reminiscent of the shallow parody issues that “The Jennifer Morgue” had with regards to the James Bond films.
The next issue was that frankly, I’d like to see more about BLUE HADES. We saw almost nothing of the treaty negotiations, despite the fact that they’re arguably the most important thing that happens in the book. (Professor Freudstein’s little scheme was just never going to work, and it certainly wouldn’t play out the way “he” had planned it.)
Another arguable issue with this book is that it’s very, very British one. If you have enough cultural privilege to get all the references, then that’s good – but if you don’t, there’s a lot here that may pass on by. (Boris bikes, Aldwych Tube Station, the Peelian Principles, the Last Night of the Proms … I could go on, but that’s just for starters.)
(TW: by the way, the next paragraph deals with something VERY squicky. Just a quick warning…)
Some of the dreamscenes with Lecter may have crossed a line, too. I get that Lecter needs to be made creepy, and I will grant that what happens isn’t portrayed as anything good or forgiveable, and Lecter certainly doesn’t succeed or get away with what it attempts to do … but we already know that it feeds by consuming peoples’ souls and that it was summoned from the Outer Darkness through a mass human sacrifice in 1930s Germany. We get that it’s a creepy sleazy dangerous and evil little fuck. I’m not convinced that adding an *attempted daemonic rape scene* was needed. Yuck.
Lastly, the book has a bit of a case of “ending disease”. Live on television, the Last Night of the Proms has been the scene of an actual extra-planetary incursion, including a mass daemonic possession event (over two thousand victims) and *an actual physical portal* to Carcosa, opened up right there in the middle of the stage! Given that somewhere in the region of 10-12 million people will have been watching that channel … yeah. Talk about a collapse of the Masquerade. And this needed following up. It isn’t even mentioned at the end.
There’s also the small matter of a very public use of a certain daemonic violin.
I would say, read this book if you’ve read and enjoyed the rest of the Laundry series. Read this book if you’re interested in seeing a fictional look at issues of policing and consent in public policy. Also read this book if you’re interested in what the opening stages of a Lovecraftian singularity could look like.
But, proceed with caution with respect to its handling of the superhero oeuvre, and also its handling of certain aspects of sexual relations.
[Fn. 1] This arguably seems to work in humanity’s favour. As things stand, BH have no use for the continents, so they don’t much care about us living on them, and have no concrete reason to do anything about the recent mammal infestation. They also seem to be surprisingly relaxed about sub-oceanic telecommunications cables [Fn. 2] – but apparently James Cameron’s trip down to the Titanic really, really upset them, and a good chunk of this particular conference is implied to have been about managing the proverbial fall-out from that.
[Fn. 2] Actually, I’m going to go out on a limb here and take a guess on why they’re being so accommodating about this. By putting part of our telecoms infrastructure on the seabed, we’ve also made it easy for BH to cut us off. In the event they decide there’s Just Too Much Computation going on upstairs and CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is getting more NIGHTMARE than GREEN, it gives them a way to dial down the pressure. Just snip a few key junctures and suddenly, the level of all that computation will drop quite sharply. The awkward side-effect is that it potentially crashes human civilisation in the process, but BH have no real reason to care about that, so…
[Fn. 3] Jessica Greene is a thinly-veiled expy of Theresa May.