The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
Golden Gryphon, 2006, US$25.95, 315pp
ISBN 1-930846-45-2

See also my review of Iron Sunrise and Missile Gap This review first appeared on The SF Site
Bob Howard, like James Bond, works for the British Secret Service - but that’s where the resemblance ends.  Howard is a computer networks manager for the Laundry, the arm of the British Secret Service that deals with events that, for want of a better word, we might label ‘occult’; ‘Lovecraftian’ might also do, even ‘transdimensional’ at a pinch, but not ‘glamorous’ – never glamorous – and certainly not ‘sexy’ or ‘exciting’, either.

Until today, that is.

Today, Bob Howard has been dragged, kicking and screaming, away from his PC and out into the world of espionage and skulduggery; out of his geek-chic t-shirt, black jeans and trainers, and forcibly inserted into – whisper it – a suit!  He’s even got a government expense account, if he can face the paperwork that actually using it will inevitably entail.  And all this is so that Bob can find out why software billionaire Ellis Billington has taken his billionaire’s yacht to the Caribbean and is currently trying to upset the delicate balance of global power by raising a crashed submarine craft from the depths of the sea in order to sell its secrets to the highest bidder.

Of course, this being a Charles Stross book about the Laundry, the crashed submarine craft is not a human one and the aforementioned delicate balance of global power is not the one you might think it is; oh, no, I’m afraid it’s far more serious than that.  So serious, in fact, that Bob’s partner, Mo, whom both we and he first met in the previous Laundry novel The Atrocity Archives, has to get involved (not because Bob’s US minder on the mission is a succubus-possessed siren of the deep, no, no, no…)

There’s no mistaking it, this is Stross’s take on the James Bond mythos, a wryly updated undermining of everything Ian Fleming held dear – and it’s great fun!  - a Fleming-Lovecraft mash-up, blending the two incompatible universes in one contradictory whole!  Super-spy versus supernatural horrors!

Stross brings Bob face to face with the harsh reality of the spy business, even whilst pitting him against a deranged billionaire living on a yacht converted from an old battleship and launching a 21st century attempt at world domination.  Interestingly, it’s the Lovecraftian elements that are taken most seriously in this treatment – Bond himself is seen as ridiculous by most characters (and for more information on this there’s an excellent essay included, ‘The Golden Age of Spying’), whereas the potential incursion of nameless interdimensional horrors is treated with the utmost gravitas.  It’s hard to imagine Hollywood – or rather, Pinewood – ever doing the same.  All the other Bond trademarks are here: the gadgets, the car, the women, the villain; but by having Bob as the central character they’re all given a slight twist.  Instead of a lock-pick in his shoe Bob has a Treo loaded with software; instead of a souped-up Aston Martin Bob has a souped-up Smart Car; and without giving the game away too much, instead of becoming ‘a hero’ Bob is locked inevitably into the role of ‘The Hero’ from the start.  The archetype-as-trap idea helps suspend our disbelief at a computer nerd becoming a super-spy, and Stross uses it cleverly to extract the maximum irony from the idea of Bob as Bond.

I’ve loved Stross’s take on the Lovecraft mythology ever since I read his exceptional short story ‘A Colder War’ (first published in Spectrum SF #3, and online at Infinity Plus).  As someone who came of age during the Cold War it has unavoidable resonances for me, with prose that is sober, sparse and frightening.  Bob Howard and the Laundry both exist on an earth slightly alternative to that of ‘A Colder War’, mainly in that it has survived and has far more paperwork, but all the essentials are there: advanced mathematics and the many worlds theorem conspiring to produce a working form of ‘magic’, as well as squamose, rugose horrors from beyond space and time.  These are used rather less than in most Laundry stories, Stross’s intention with The Jennifer Morgue obviously being a parody and pastiche, but there are enough murky references to CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, mathematical invocations and IT in-jokes to satisfy all but the very least admirers of Ian Fleming.

The Jennifer Morgue is a rip-roaringly entertaining homage; a highly intelligent high adventure bursting with geek humour and a love for the spy genre.
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