Charles Stross, The Apocalypse Codex

With each successful case, Bob Howard has progressed further into the depths of the secret British organization known as the Laundry. Now, after recovering from yet another world-saving adventure, he’s been tapped for promotion and training, with an eye towards…who knows what.

When he’s temporarily reassigned to the department of External Assets, Bob discovers a whole new side to the Laundry, one which works with freelance operatives and unofficial agents. He’s tasked with acting as liaison and handler for the team of Persephone Hazard and Johnny McTavish, who’ve been sent to investigate an American televangelist who’s making certain folks at the Laundry very nervous.

Naturally, the mission goes wrong in a hurry, when it’s revealed that Ray Schiller isn’t just a fundamentalist with a rabid following, he’s a man trying to bring about the end of the world by dealing with some really nasty stuff from another dimension. And that’s when Bob and his allies must do everything in their power to prevent a global catastrophe. Just another day on the job, right?

The Apocalypse Codex is the fourth in Stross’ Laundry Files, a series which brilliantly and adeptly merges the gadgets, globe-trotting, and action of James Bond, with the darkness, paranoia, and atmosphere of the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s a world where Cold War secrets tend to come wrapped around tentacles and apocalyptic cults, where technology is sometimes indistinguishable from magic, and where we’re always a few steps away from utter destruction. It’s a sometimes awkward pairing, but one which works more often than not, pitting Bob Howard, the everyman, against mind-control, ritual sacrifice, demented worshippers of dark things, and rival agencies. In the wrong hands, this could be written off as pastiche, clumsy homage, or blatant ripoff. Stross, however, seems to have a healthy respect for the traditions he’s mining for inspiration.

Reading this book is like falling down the rabbit hole of conspiracies and multi-layered plans, as one revelation leads to another. Once the American agency known as the Black Chamber gets involved, it gets ugly. (I find it interesting that while the Laundry is morally gray, and not always the most admirable group in the bunch, it comes off like a pack of choir boys compared to their American counterparts. The Black Chamber, or Operational Phenomenology Agency as they’re officially labeled, is downright evil…and still the lesser evil compared to what’s out there waiting to get in.)

I have to admit, I like Bob. He’s a genuinely good man, loyal to his companions and always intent on doing the right thing, faithful to his wife and resourceful in a crisis. In fact, it’s those very qualities which make him of such interest to his superiors, and which drive much of the plot. Is he loyal and faithful to a fault? Perhaps. But it’s clear that, in a world chock-full of dark secrets, shadowy agencies, evil cults, and unspeakable horrors, he’s a rare necessity, a decent man and a light against the darkness. I have no doubt that we’ll see more of this contrast as he’s sucked further into the world he inhabits, as the series marches towards a seemingly inevitable apocalypse. (Reports have it that Stross has planned for a nine or ten book series, with the event known as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, a world-devastating episode of Cthulhuian proportions planned to occur past the halfway point.) (And based on where the ending of this book leaes our hero, I can’t wait to see what’s in store for him next.)

I do have to wonder if Stross is making a particular comment about religion in this book. After all, the primary antagonists are essentially a radical fundamentalist sect, an evangelical Pentecostalist group with “extra sauce,” as Bob puts it. You can get a lot of mileage out of the stricter, weirder, more strident flavors of Christianity, such as what pops up in the wilds of America, and Stross plays it for all he’s worth, wielding their faith in (some form of) Jesus as they conspire to bring about the end of the world. Religion, and its relative flexibility in interpretation, plays a noticeable role in the series as a whole, and it’s often suggested that the only “true” religion involves something of Cthulhuian nature: immensely powerful, alien to our understanding, extremely hungry, and impossible to stop on a mortal level. It’s a somewhat bleak outlook, totally fitting for a series that marries Cold War atomic fear to Lovecraftian fatalism.

But lest you think all is doomed, Stross still manages to maintain a level of optimism. The heroes never back down from a fight without good reason, never surrender to the inevitable, and certainly never leave a friend behind if they can help it. They know the apocalypse is coming, and so they work towards the most optimal outcome, one which allows a measure of survival. Hope springs eternal even as the shadows lengthen over the universe.

It may not be for everyone, but The Apocalypse Codex is a hard-hitting thrill of an adventure, with all of the intrigue, action, gadgets, magic, complexity and over-the-top ideas one might hope for. I’ve always found Stross to be hit and miss, with some of his work turning me off completely, but he’s always on the ball where the Laundry Files are concerned, and I look forward to future installments.

(Ace, 2012)

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