The Fuller Memorandum

Charles Stross
The Fuller Memorandum Cover

The Fuller Memorandum


Oh, how can I both effectively and concisely describe Charles Stross' the novels, novellas, and short stories that comprise The Laundry Files? The Office with an occult James Bond? Magic meets Tech support? Dilbert meets Cthulhu? Well, ahem, I think I'll take the long way around, then. Let's start with the main character, Bob. Bob was a computer programmer working on algorithms for graphic designs when a shady branch of Her Majesty's government paid him a visit to tell him that, A) those math equations you were playing around with nearly summoned the dark god known as Nyarlahotep, B) whether you like it or not, you now work work for the Laundry, Brittan's secret branch for protection against things that go bump in the night, and C) your reward for keeping the country safe from shambling terrors beyond space time and for surviving a cutthroat and heavily-bureaucratic office environment is a civil servant's salary. Enjoy.

The basic framework of the series comes from cold war spy thrillers (secret agents, competition between the intelligence agencies of various nations, balance of world power, etc.), the setting and context from Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, and the humor from the everyday headaches and frustrations of the contemporary office environment. For those of you not in the know, the Cthulhu Mythos was pioneered by HP Lovecraft in the early half of the 20th century. It's all about humans discovering the true nature of a universe populated by very old, very nasty creatures of staggering power, for whom humanity are pawns/slaves at best and food at worst. The protagonists of these stories tend to become unhinged by their experiences, and understandably so. Lovecraft is seen as the progenitor of the mythos, but during his life and after his death it has been modified and forwarded to others (including Stross, in this case) who have expanded, codified, and played with it, and new anthologies of tales using the mythos keep coming out. It's pervaded popular culture in some interesting ways, from South Park to film, games, and even parodies of religious tracts.

It's important to note that you don't have to be conversant in Lovecraft to enjoy Stross work, as he helps to take you through the bits of it important to the story. "Magic" in Stross' series is all accomplished by mathematics, much of it so advanced a computer is needed. As Bob explains:

Magic being a branch of applied mathematics, when you carry out certain computational operations, it has echoes in the Platonic realm of pure mathematics—echoes audible to beings whose true nature I cannot speak of, on account of doing so being a violation of the Official Secrets Act. Theoretical Thaumaturgists are the guys who develop new efferent algorithms (or, colloquially, "spells"): it's an occupation with a high attrition rate.

-From Stross' "Down on the Farm"

We travel with Bob as he goes from being a lowly programmer to a "computational demonologist" (a kind of field agent) on management track. Bob has to avoid being eaten by the gibbering horrors trying to poke their way into our world while simultaneously coping with the bureaucracy and cutthroat attitudes of life in the offices of the Laundry. You'd think that the threat of doom from another plane of existence would keep people from being so petty, but just like any modern office environment pettiness abounds. When Bob's not trying to outsmart demons, he's sweating his review in the office's next paperclip audit or trying not to lose his mind while his manager is on his ass for their next OS update. Imagine an episode during a particularly apocalyptic season of 24 where, in between the world saving, the characters accuse each other of abusing printing privileges, stealing staples, or where they hold a meeting on updating their cabling, and you've got a good idea of the stress Howard has to cope with in his daily life. Of course, the office drama and tedium adds an element of the absurd to a pretty bleak mythology, and in the end that's what saves Stross' work from being all doom and gloom. The ridiculousness Bob observes and his wry wit makes it exasperatingly funny at times.

David McWilliam in his review at Strange Horizons summarized all this more succinctly than I:

In the Laundry series, Charles Stross combines both the humorous and detective strands of contemporary Lovecraftian writing, splicing them with hard SF, the spy thriller tradition, and a scathing satire of bureaucracy and post-9/11 attitudes to security, creating something that feels both familiar and excitingly innovative.

Yeah, what he said. If for nothing else, it's an interesting combination, but that's not all it is, an abstract mix of stuff. The Laundry Files is an action-packed, character driven series, and the way Stross pulls off this unique mix of genre conventions is nothing short of engaging. I typically don't fiddle with books on the horror shelf, but I'm a sucker for interesting match-ups of genres, and like The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Laundry Files present such an interesting mix of elements that I found it irresistible after I started the first book. Both previous books, The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, I'd rate between 8.5 and 9. So, how does The Fuller Memorandum, the third book in the series and a 2010 Locus Fantasy Award Finalist, stack up?

Fizzle: Where the Fuller Memorandum Could Have Been Better

Set some years after the events of The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum shakes up the mix a bit without losing much of what made the previous novels so entertaining. First off, the stakes are much higher, like "beginning of the end of the world," high. Second, the pace and setting is a bit of a change from the previous novels in that Bob pretty much stays on his home turf in this one. The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue (the latter of which was explicitly modeled after Ian Fleming's James Bond novels) involved Howard adventuring abroad. The Fuller Memorandum, however, is modeled after the spy novels of Anthony Price, whose protagonist agents worked for an internal security and counter-espionage department much like MI5. Consequently, Bob deals with threats to to the homeland and within his own organization in The Fuller Memorandum. I came to miss the globe-trotting aspects of Howard's exploits, but if you have read any of the shorter works that typically have him on his home turf anyway, this book won't seem too out of place.

What was supposed to be a fairly routine operation goes very bad for Bob, and an bystander is killed in the process. Mo (short for Dominique, Bob's wife) also has a particularly nasty run of bad luck on a foreign operation, and the two begin to wonder if they are being specifically targeted and try to find out by whom and why. Angleton goes missing, as does the titular Fuller Memorandum, and everyone seems to think Bob knows where it is. The only problem is that he has to try to figure out what it is before he can get it back and maybe save the world.

Now, the book has a hell of a conclusion, and aside from a lot of action and tension it's got a simultaneously hilarious and scary reversal of fortune for one particular cult. I was driving when it happened and the words "oh, shit" sprang to my lips before I knew it. I felt, however, that the book dragged some on its way there. First off, we get a lot of scenes with Bob feeling dejected about his operation gone wrong and the consequences he has to face at work (which leads him to make a comfort-buy of an iPhone that another character downloads a full occult-defense suite to, prompting Bob and Mo to re-name it the "Necronomipod"). Don't get me wrong, I like Bob and I like spending time inside his head: I feel like I could spend all day just listening to the narrator of the unabridged audiobook, Gideon Emery, describing Bob going about his daily business, but I felt it created this big lull where we weren't learning any of the relevant back story or exactly what was at at stake.

Bob does get into a couple of tight spots when he's out on his own in the streets of London, which you would think would help the pacing but in my experience it didn't. The fact that I could foresee both encounters with the baddies coming from miles and miles away and the fact that he practically falls for the same trick twice took a lot of the oompf out of it and irritated me to the point of, again, yelling at Bob while I was driving my car. I also was able to foresee the big betrayal of the book, which isn't so much a product of bad storytelling as it is Stross needing to add a few more suspects on the field to keep us guessing, but again, oompf depleted.

Also, there are a lot of scenes of Bob just being confused about what's going on. I know the fact that Bob is kept in the dark most of the time (intentionally so, more often than not) and has to find things out on his own is the Modus Oprandi of the series. Still that makes for an annoying position where the protagonist who can't help but react to certain questions with "what're you talking about," or "the what? I have no idea what that is." This irritates me because I like Bob, I like how witty he is, and the fact that he is kept in the dark kind of limits his dialogue interactions with certain characters to the aforementioned declarations of confusion. Those kind of scenes just seem to be setting up a big exposition dump of the whole story later on, but until then I have to wait until the full scope of the danger is revealed. Perhaps that is another convention of the spy-thriller genre Stross is working within, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. At this point, "I don't know what you're talking about" isn't gong to cut the mustard: I want to see Bob take charge more in these interactions.

Stross seems to feel uncomfortable at times with the restricted of the first-person viewpoint, and occasionally we shoot across town into the limited perspectives of Mo and at least one other character. It's kind of a weird flouting of fictional conventions that takes some getting used to. Bob's perspective is also occasionally broken up by letters he found pertaining to the founding of the Laundry and the origins of the Fuller Memorandum itself, which at times seemed to vague for me to really get into them since they are intended to be pieces of the puzzle, and pieces you can't really fit together until further towards the climax at that.

What the Fuller Memorandum Does Well

Like I said, the book trades off a lot of action in the beginning and middle for a hell of an action-packed climax, involving some pretty nasty stuff and a pretty wicked reversal of fortune for the bad guys. It costs Bob, though, physically, emotionally, and mentally. It'll be interesting to see how he recovers from this one. One aspect I particularly liked about this book was that it delved more into the toll such a life takes on Bob and Mo. The two were apart for most of the previous novel, and so this helped to develop Mo some more and to flesh out their relationship a bit better. For example, Mo also has an operation that goes horribly wrong, exponentially more wrong than Bob's, and we get to see how the two lean on each other for comfort and support, and Stross uses previously used story elements well in this effect. For example, the "gesh," a spell that is used to compel silence and compliance when dealing with top-secret operations, and Bob has to take charge and get Mo's line manager to revoke the gesh on her latest operation so she can talk about it and let Bob help her cope with it before she loses her shit. We also learn why Bob and Mo don't have and don't plan to have children. When the stars come right, then Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors can be awoken if there are enough human minds (described in this effect as complex computers all) to trigger the quantum effect that can rouse them from their slumber. This event is codenamed Case Nightmare Green by the Laundry, and since the stars are set to come right in just a few years, Bob and Mo don't want to bring a child into a world that may be about to end very, very badly.

We also get to learn a lot more about the history and circumstances of the Laundry's founding. Part of this was handled via occasional cuts to those letters I mentioned at the end of the previous section, letters from one of the Laundry's progenitors to one of his contacts. They really didn't work for me. As I said earlier, these letters are supposed to plants seeds of information and context that will make sense once the curtain is fully lifted towards the, but I kind of found them tedious and they cluttered up the plot in places. Probably one of the coolest reveals in this book, though, is that through these letters and other bits of information we finally find out just what the deal is with Angleton, Bob's spooky boss. Stross handled that in such a way that I am both more endeared to Angleton and spooked by him at the same time, which was neat.

The End of the World… er, this Review

The Fuller Memorandum trades the globe-trotting elements of its preceding novels for a focus on the battle at home; so in this way it's more akin to Stross' shorter works in the series than the novels. While a new reader might have been able to jump in onThe Jennifer Morgue,The Fuller Memorandum should really only be read by Laundry fans, since it is a bit slower paced in the middle, building to a big finish, and requires some prior investment and knowledgeof the prior characters to help drive the action. I had some issues with the work, but after racking my brains about what score to give it I came back to the fact that the book left me more invested in the characters and interested in what Stross will throw at them enxt, which is the sign of a sequel that does its job right. I can still confidently say that if you've enjoyed the mix of occult espionage, wry geek humor, and good characters from the series so far, you won't be let down by The Fuller Memorandum

The narrator of the unabridged audiobook I listened to, Gideon Emory, does his usual good job of handling voices and Bob's inner monologue well, although when the shit was really going down at the end his voice was on a level with most of the rest of the book, making that section feel like a recitation and less like a performance. That aside, it was a good performance.

If you're interested in the series, I recommend starting with The Atrocity Archives, although you can find some of the shorter stories online for free (because Stross is one of those cool authors who permits some his stuff to be published online for free) to see if they are to your liking. The stories, in order, include "The Concrete Jungle" (a Hugo-winning novella, originally published with The Atrocity Archives) "Down on the Farm", and "Overtime."