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Claude Lalumiere's Fantastic Fiction
The Atrocity Archives

by Charles Stross

(Golden Gryphon, $24.95, 273 pages, hardcover; published in May 2004.)

The Atrocity Archives collects three cover scanworks by prolific British author Charles Stross: the short novel "The Atrocity Archive" (sans "s"), originally serialized in the UK magazine Spectrum SF; a sequel, the previously unpublished novella "The Concrete Jungle"; and a new essay called "Inside the Fear Factory".

The short novel "The Atrocity Archive" is Stross's strongest work so far. Like much of his fiction it suffers somewhat from a tendency to lose itself (and readers) in long expository passages, but here this quirk is kept under better control and only interferes with the concluding chapters, where the exposition rolls out torrentially, the author barely able to contain himself any longer.

The novel describes the work of Bob Howard (is the allusion to Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, intentional?), an insubordinate but resourceful operative for The Laundry, an ultra-secret British intelligence agency that deals with paranormal phenomena -- only in this context it's all "scientific", the encroaching otherwordly events explicable via cutting-edge information theory.

The mood is winningly reminescent of Len Deighton's classic Cold War spy thrillers, pitting the protagonist against mind-numbingly petty office politics, all the while spinning an exciting and imaginative adventure. Stross seductively creates an entire secret history of international intelligence agencies working to keep the other levels of reality from spilling out into everyday life -- or using their knowledge for the advantage of their government.

The sequel, "The Concrete Jungle", much more laden down by exposition, lacks the emotional urgency that makes "The Atrocity Archive" so involving but is still worth reading for the playful inventiveness of its ideas.

Stross closes off with an insightful and thought-provoking essay on the links between horror and espionage fiction, concentrating on Deighton and H.P. Lovecraft, the two most obvious influences at work in The Atrocity Archives.

Originally published in
The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, 12 June 2004.

Claude Lalumière's Fantastic Fiction is a series of
capsule reviews first published in the Saturday Books
section of The Montreal Gazette.

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