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The Laundry


Aug. 9, 2011

Charles Stross is probably my favorite author for pulpy science fiction and fantasy. In some ways he is similar to Robert Heinlein; he cranks out a lot of prose, has the occasional "literary" novel, and is always a lot of fun. He even wrote a novel deliberately in the style of Heinlein, "Saturn's Children." I recently listened to the audiobook version of his "Laundry Trilogy" while commuting.

The protagonist, Bob Howard, is a computational demonologist who works for a secret British agency known as The Laundry. Their mission is to defend England from various extra-dimensional threats, i.e. demons. Basically, magic is real but a form of applied computer and material science. In the Laundry, Mr. Howard serves in the dual capacity of IT policy supervisor and magically-trained field operative. This seems inspired by the introduction to the classic computer science textbook, the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.

"A computational process is indeed much like a sorcerer's idea of a spirit. It cannot be seen or touched. It is not composed of matter at all. However, it is very real. It can perform intellectual work. It can answer questions. It can affect the world by disbursing money at a bank or by controlling a robot arm in a factory. The programs we use to conjure processes are like a sorcerer's spells. They are carefully composed from symbolic expressions in arcane and esoteric programming languages that prescribe the tasks we want our processes to perform."

In the world of the Laundry, the side effect of computation is often to contact intelligences from other dimensions, who are drawn to certain theorems and computational processes. They especially like the quick creation of entropy, which is the result of all computation by Von Neumann machine and, creepily, human sacrifice. Once Stross builds up this parallel, computational demonology, combat epistemology, and entropic sorcery all seems like realistic careers.

Stross uses this settings to tell Lovecraft and Fleming inspired thrillers. In the first novel, "The Atrocity Archives," Howard stumbles upon a plot by an old Nazi occult group who exiled themselves in a parallel dimension before Hitler fell. However, their actions awoke an ice giant who slowly sucked away all the energy in their parallel universe. Looking for more, he traces back to our universe and plots to open a gateway.

In the second, "The Jennifer Morgue," we're introduced to spooky deep-sea races and a powerful Bond-esque villain seeking to raise a WWII-era submarine for its world-conquering artifacts. The plot self-consciously follows the a James Bond plotline.

In the third entry, "The Fuller Memorandum," Bob Howard must contend with a group of Lovecraftian cultists seeking to hasten the end of the world by raising an ancient demon known as the Eater of Souls.

Aside from the usual fun of a thriller, this series succeeds by including parodies of government and corporate bureaucracy. The most feared arm of the Laundry is a shadowy group known as The Auditors. Bob Howard is constantly forced to contend not only with demons and gibbering horrors, but also brown-bag lunches, process and policy meetings, and cross-agency international software procurement planning committees. Stross is also liberal with references to other media, such as Castle Wolfenstein, Neverwinter Nights (which serves as a honeypot for demons loose on the Internet), and the Bastard Operator from Hell short stories.

This is basically the perfect material to keep you awake in stop-and-go traffic. The highest praise I can give is that on several occasions I sat in the car to finish a scene once arriving at my destination.

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