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Crib Sheet: The Atrocity Archive(s)

(This is going to be a slightly abbreviated discussion, because I discussed the book's ideas at length in the supplementary essay bundled with it, and answered a number of questions about it in the blog entry immediately preceding this one.)

So what's left to say ...?

Rewind the clock to 1993. I was living in Watford, part of the suburban sprawl that surrounds London proper, working for a Californian software multinational and not writing enough fiction. One of my problems was starting stories and not finishing them. One of the starts I made, was this rather weird, chillingly distanced third-person-omniscient vision of a CIA photographic analyst in a world where the cold war produced even more baroque technologies than in our own: his memories of a childhood visit to an air show where nuclear-powered NB-36s were on display (in our universe, the NB-36 program was cancelled before anything flew under actual nuclear power, as with the Soviet Tu-95LAL (the follow-on Tu-119 never flew either)). His memories merge with his angst as he pores over recon imagery of .... what?

Forward to 1997. I'd read a short story by Bruce Sterling, The Unthinkable. It's a short throw-away in which a pair of arms negotiators are reminiscing about how they agreed to back away from the precipice and cut the Cold War horror arsenals by ditching the ICBMs and Hydrogen bombs chained Lovecraftian horrors ... and I suddenly realised what my analyst was looking at. I'd also been re-reading "At The Mountains of Madness" and decided, in classic naive non-metaphorical science fictional mode (where a rocket ship is just a rocket ship every time) to tackle the alienation and ennui engendered by constant exposure to the threat of annihilation, and also to make the Mythos frightening again by linking Lovecraft's horrors (by then reduced to the stuff of silly jokes and plush bedroom slippers) to a terrifying reality that had only receded into the background in the past few years.

The result was a story titled "A Colder War". I sold it, and it garnered quite a bit of attention—I get a reprint request pretty much every year.

Fast-forward to 1999. I'd finished working on "Festival of Fools" (aka "Singularity Sky") and it was on its way to an editor's in-tray. I'd written "Lobsters" and it was doing the rounds ("meritless, vapid, style-obsessed trash" said the rejection letter from the first editor I sent it to, he who had just bought "A Colder War": there's no accounting for taste). I needed a novel-length project and I had bits of the wreckage of "The Harmony Burn" to cannibalize (this was the unpublishable novel from 1994-96—unpublishable for structural/characterisation reasons, not because publishers are stupid). Secret government agencies dealing with the suppression of hard take-off singularities seemed a bit dubious to me by then, but I'd just sold "A Colder War" and, while that particular story was far too bleak to work with, the idea of rebooting the Lovecraftian/spy nexus appealed. So I began writing. And the first thing I came up with was Bob, mentally swearing at his boss as the rain trickles down the back of his neck and he tries to break into an office I used to work at in Watford to steal a deadly thesis.

At which point everything was hopelessly cross-infected by my memories of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy inside that particular company's technical publications department. And then I had Bob go back to work the next day in a grim little civil service office maze not unlike to one I'd spent three months working in as a contractor in 1996. Both jobs were so soul-destroying that you had to view them as black farce in order to work there: the software company, for example, was the one where whenever senior executives came to visit our managers would trawl the cubicle farm first thing in the morning to take down all the Dilbert cartoons pinned to the walls.

I was working in a dotcom startup at the time, and spending too much time reading Slashdot. And it occurred to me that the staid British civil service would have serious indigestion if it tried to swallow a Slashdot-era dotcom geek. But what if the bureaucracy in question wasn't allowed to fire him? There's scope for comedy there, the comedy of dissonance: round peg in a square hole, and so on.

So there you've got the ingredients. Lovecraftian horror; the secret agency dedicated to protecting us from the scum of the multiverse: the protagonist (Bob, a put-upon hacker who is an utterly inappropriate hire but who can't be gotten rid of): the cold war ambiance: the dark humour. I probably ought to mention the novels of Len Deighton, which I was re-reading at the time—one of the most significant of the British cold war thriller writers.

The whole thing snowballed into a short novel. In early 2001 I sold first serial rights to the same small Scottish magazine who'd published "A Colder War" and "Antibodies"; it ran in Spectrum SF issues 7-10 after John Christopher's last novel and was read by maybe a thousand people. (Thereafter, Spectrum SF ceased publication. I like to think I didn't kill it.) This was my first published novel, and I sold it myself; my agent's first reaction when I sent it to her was, "this is great fun but it'll be impossible to sell: it's far too cross-genre". She was, in fact, quite correct ... for a non-name author in 2001.

The rest is history, although it's a rather weird history: at some point I'm going to have to write down the tortured publication track of the first four Laundry novels just to provide some context, just to show that rules are for breaking. This series broke all the rules of publishing and somehow prospered, never mind merely surviving—even though the dice were stacked against it from the beginning.

But that's enough for now. (I've just finished the first draft of a new Laundry novella, set between "The Jennifer Morgue" and "The Fuller Memorandum", and my hands are too sore to continue typing!)

31 Comments

1:

With the rise of GDS, the civil service is hiring all the Slashdot reading geeks it can lay it's hands on now.

2:

Thank you, android autocomplete, for making me look illiterate on my first comment on this site. Sigh.

3:

I actually bought Spectrum SF 7 and 8 especially for this, and then never got the last ones or read it from them (I hate starting something I can't finish). At the time it was stocked in the Borders in Leeds city centre, but the last issue to appear there was no. 8.

Eventually got to read it a few years later in the US paperback edition picked up on a trip over there.

4:

Looks like you've made about half a dozen contributions to Slashdot in the last four years. I'd be interested if you had any thoughts on Slashdot back in the day, whether its changed any, and if it helped you refine your thought process at all. I know editing Wikipedia and defending my opinions on the xkcd forums did about as much for my critical thinking process and research skills as did my bachelor of history (terms I served concurrently). Did Slashdot do about as much for you?

5:

1. Off-topic.

2. Slashdot's been dead since 2001 at the latest. Probably 1999. Some time between Rob Malda having to start doing it full-time for a living and the acquisition by VA Linux and subsequent disastrous IPO.

6:

MM lets hope so :-) Am in the process of applying for a couple of Civil service techie posts.

Though if I get any where it will make my plan to have a laundry service t shirt for the next prospect conference interesting.

Prospect is the Civil service union for techies presumably the one implied to have raised the HR issues of employing Zombies.

7:

Well, that explains a lot of the disconnect between my (post 2001) actual experience of slashdot and the implicit (pre-1999) description in "Lobsters".

8:

My introduction to "The Atrocity Archives" came via exposure to "Antibodies" & "A Colder War" reprinted in Gardner Dozois Year's Best SF(*). I had gone off SF for a while & the Year's Best was a good way of dipping my toes in the genre again. Those two stories piqued my interest in this Charles Stross person; someone who could come up with stuff this weird yet strangely addictive was someone to watch.

A quick noodle online found the Golden Gryphon site and upon reading the excerpt from TAA Hardcover ("Green sky at night; hacker's delight") I *had* to buy it(**). It would have been one of my first online purchases. TAA became the book I would thrust onto friends over the next several months ("You need to read this!") resulting in at least a half-dozen copies of TAA ending up in Auckland, New Zealand. Not too shabby for a print run of (IIRC) ~2000. It hit the sweet spot for a certain sort of reader (me), and turned me into a fan.

(*)It was the 18th annual anthology; "Lobsters" would turn up the next year.
(**) In this instance, without the excerpt I don't think I would have made that purchase.

9:

"1. Off-topic."

Eep! Sorry.

10:

Sorry if I missed this in the books:

What ministry does The Laundry fall under? I initially thought FO, but the domestic work would likely exclude that and there's a bit too much of a civilian feel to it to be MoD.

11:

PM @ 10
The Ministry of Magic of course!
Sorry about that - no I'm not, errr ....

Note that the Artists' Rifles are involved ( I know an ex-member .. & they are, err, 23 SAS TA ?? )
So MoD, but in deep, deep cover.
Remember, they are supposedly protecting the state from external threats (external as in other dimensions, that is) even if some of the "enemy" are domestic.

12:

There are two TA battalions of the SAS, 21 SAS(R) and 23 SAS(R). As with most TA units, there's a geographic scatter to where the sub-units recruit, and it's 21 SAS in southern England and Wales.

If I remember right, it's partly an admin cover, rather than loading up a bunch of TA squaddies trained for long-range recce. These guys are specialists.

13:

It could be Home Office.

With the reorganisations, it could be anywhere. Why not DEFRA?

Cabinet Office?

Is Bob Howard senior enough yet to know for sure who the Minister might be? He might think Home Office or MoD at the time of TAA, and either could fit with the intelligence world.

14:

I think the sponsoring minister would have to be one of the great officers of state.

Classically the Security Service has the Home Office and SIS the Foreign Office as their sponsor.

I suspect in the laundry verse its the FO or given the revelation in the latest book - another secret government body that maybe sits parallel to the public government a descendant of the star chamber maybe.

I suspect due to lobbying by the armed forces the Laundry isn't allowed (officially) to have its own operators and just borrows the SAS and SBS as required.

Unlike the CIA who run their own Para Milatery units the SOG (Special Operations Group) possibly the Nazgull have something similar - though not being a able to get a team on the ground in denver indicates that they may be not as powerful as Bob thinks.

15:

Wouldn't it be part of the PM's brief?

Ohgodohgodohgod - just flashed on Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey discussing "the Laundry!!!!"

16:

"I suspect due to lobbying by the armed forces the Laundry isn't allowed (officially) to have its own operators and just borrows the SAS and SBS as required."

See also 666 Squadron and whoever operates the White Elephants.... :-)

17:

Actually, the Laundry came under SOE from 1940 onward -- and SOE was nominally under control of the Minister of Economic Warfare. SOE itself was closed down by order of PM Clement Attlee in 1946; it's reasonable to assume that any remaining elements would remain under Prime Ministerial control to keep it from becoming a bone of contention between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense (both of whom fought over ownership of SOE during the war).

18:

It would be Cabinet Office, since coordination of Homeland Security & Resilience type stuff would come under Civil Contingencies - which they tend to lead.

Or more realistically, there would probably be and ongoing low level war of empire building seeking for control of the money.

19:

There are some havens within the civil service for tech types where they are allowed to get on with the job. I used to work in one for some very good years. The problem was that higher management didn't understand what they had and allowed it to be broken up in the course of a reorganisation.

20:

This may fit better when you reach Rule 34, what with the villain's plot being stolen by Bernie Madoff, but since this series is set more or less "now" I'll ask it here. How do current events effect your writing, either with this series or others? As I recall the opposition in Atrocity Archives was originally going to be Al Qaeda instead of the Mukhabarat, but it got changed due to that small incident in September.

I also remember (either here or in "Jennifer Morgue")that Bob says the reason the Black Chamber hasn't found bin Laden was that (a) they had better things to do and (b) he was already dead anyways. Obviously this raises questions about who or what was killed in Pakistan back in 2011. How often do these sort of things pop up and affect your writing? Are they generally useful for idea fodder or annoying because suddenly the real world has either stolen your plot or otherwise thrown a wrench in things?

21:

Charlie @ 17 ... but 280 personnel were taken into the "Special Operations Branch" of MI6. (from Wiki) ..
Hence the origin of the Laundry, OK, yes/no?

22:

I seem to have the strong conviction that Slashdot died when it went threaded. And I've just wasted 20 minutes trying to find out when that was, and failed miserably. That it was once flat comments only, seems lost to history...or perhaps my brain has just made it up :)

23:

Your brain isn't making things up; slashdot was originally flat-only.

I suspect the rot was irrevocable around the time they introduced user IDs. (Yes my ID is 1238. But that's an accident; it was originally in the 30,000s. But someone broke the database and they had to force everyone to re-register which is when I grabbed a four-digit number.)

The only discussion system I can think of where threading worked was usenet, and then only because the threading was done by the client software: the likes of trn and then strn and slrn rocked at threading (and scoring, and magic killfiling). I have never met a GUI-based USENET newsreader, in contrast, that wasn't really shit at threading. Bah, humbug.

24:

Charlie,
Where did you get the idea for the hands of glory? I know they're a myth (way to make house breaker's invisible) but how did you get the idea to make laser guns out of them? And use pigeons and monkeys for part sources?

25:

In your afterwords/acknowledgements, you've mentioned some authors like Len Deighton, Peter O'Donnell, and more recently tossed off a reference on Twitter to Cold Comfort Inn re: the new Laundry story.
I would really like to see your recommended non-science fiction list- I checked out Modesty Blaise via the O'Donnell reference and I think it'll be up my alley.

IDK if Ian Tregillis is still reading this, but via his blogging here, I ended up tracking down some of the quack Nazi UFO/Gaza Death Ray authors he mentioned and had a great time reading those.

26:

One question I have is whether there was any influence from Tom Holt's "The Portable Door" (and it's successors) on the Laundry series? They both take "Magic exists" as a starting point and build a world from there. Tom Holt assumes that you'd have private companies doing the work, run very much in the same way as a firm of solicitors. This allows much fun to be had with inter-firm rivalry, clients, office politics, hierarchies and procedures. In contrast, our host assumes it would be run by the civil service, and we see how that works out.

My view is that Tom Holt can start with an interesting conjecture, but often gets lost about halfway through.

27:

The Portable Door - Copyright date 2003
The Atrocity Archives - CD 2004

Since Charlie's blogged many times on the length of the publishing pipe from author typing "The End" to "books on shelves" I feel safe in saying that he'd finished writing TAA before anyone who didn't get a proof copy could have read TPD. TPD is more likely to have influenced Jasper Fforde's Dragonslayer trilogy.

28:

I notice Front 242 references in the Laundry books. Did I imagine them, or are they real? (Actually, I think maybe I saw on in Singularity Sky, referencing circling overland)

29:

"The only discussion system I can think of where threading worked was usenet, and then only because the threading was done by the client software: the likes of trn and then strn and slrn rocked at threading (and scoring, and magic killfiling). I have never met a GUI-based USENET newsreader, in contrast, that wasn't really shit at threading. Bah, humbug."

Most discussion forum software didn't seem to come with kill files, which were obviously a much-needed thing even when the Internet had a hundredth as many people on as now.

30:

Trying again because I think Charlie was kind of busy shortly after I posted it.
--
Charlie,
Where did you get the idea for the hands of glory? I know they're a myth (way to make house breaker's invisible) but how did you get the idea to make laser guns out of them? And use pigeons and monkeys for part sources?

31:

Not only do I love the Laundry books, but when I read that you'd been influenced by early Len Deighton, I went and read all his never-actually-named-Harry-Palmer books, for which I am also eternally grateful.

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