Hugh Hancock here. Charlie is currently in a space beyond place and time, folded into manifold dimensions that ring like bone-carved bells. Or to put it another way, he's on public transport. So I'm filling in for the day - he'll be back shortly!
Our Gracious Host's supernatural comedy-thriller series is set in a Lovecraftian universe, and features a geek of the programmer variety who uses his knowledge to invoke Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, following which he gets into a great deal of trouble.
My latest film, HOWTO: Demon Summoning (released about 25 minutes ago - watch here), is the first part of a supernatural comedy-thriller series set in a Lovecraftian universe, featuring a geek of the programmer variety who use his knowledge to invoke Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, following which... well, spoilers. But it doesn't end in hugs and puppies.
And yet, the two universes and the two stories aren't - at least as far as I can tell - very similar. The tone's different, the magic's different.
Is "Geek Cthulhu" sufficiently broad to actually constitute a genre?
The Black Goat Of The Woods' 1001th Young
As the 21st century gets its legs under it and starts to pick up a bit of speed, the entire concept of genre seems to be changing dramatically. We're in a world where artistic output in all media has climbed astronomically and, at the same time, data-driven segmentation (a la Netflix) allows us to drill down much more into exactly what people read, watch, listen to and play.
So genres are becoming, apparently, much narrower. And yet, it's clear that there's more space in them than we might have realised.
The start of the century saw the canonical example of the phenomenon with the appearance of 'Paranormal Romance' as a mainstream genre. Now, compared to a genre like 'sci-fi', say, or 'thriller', 'Paranormal Romance' is almost laughably narrow. It's set in the modern day. The protagonist is female (99%). She ends up in romantic entanglements with one of about five potential types of partner - in order of frequency, vampires, werewolves, witches, fairies or the occasional zombie. There is a heavy mystery element.
That's pretty specific, and yet it's enough to fuel hundreds of books.
Hence my feeling that with 'Geek Cthulhu' we're seeing the seeds of another genre. Let's see. Tech- or science- savvy protagonist (gender irrelevant). Modern day. Thriller tone. Awareness of modern technology. Lovecraftian magic. Some comedic overtones. And that's all there is to it - after that we've got the entire world to roam.
Charlie's Laundry is inspired by the British civil service, spy novels and programming. HOWTO's universe centres around a shady Internet forum where people who would otherwise be doing black-hat SEO crowdsource ways to profit from demonology. And I'm sure there are dozens of other spins on the same thing.
So why does it work?
Well, for starters, the Lovecraftian universe fits extremely well with the universe as understood by geeks. It's a fundementally science-driven place, where all magic is indeed just sufficiently advanced technology. Cthulhu isn't scary because he's a big squid, he's scary because he's a Culture Mind without the sense of humour or concern for human life. Yog-Sothoth isn't a Judeo-Christian demon, it's a force of the universe like Weak Nuclear or gravity.
Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology Is Bloody Terrifying
And that brings me to my title. The other reason that Lovecraftian horror and geek protagonist/culture fit together so well is that Lovecraftian horror revolves around a complete, horrific reversal of some of science's most basic precepts.
For starters, 'Knowledge is good'. That's pretty core to most of our belief systems. And the Cthulhu Mythos present a world where that's horribly not true - where knowledge is something that you must avoid if you wish to continue to function. Where people who learn, study and seek to understand, kill themselves or kill people close to them. Where all those idiots saying 'we should limit scientific exploration' were right.
At the same time, 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' is a very scary phrase. Because whilst it might just mean 'whoa, this iPhone is like magic', it might also mean 'you only think that technology, science and the advancement of learning is good because you haven't advanced enough in it yet'.
In Lovecraft's universe, the Grand Universal Theory isn't a mathematical equation that allows us to understand everything - it's a mathematical equation that lets us understand that, in order to survive, we need to supplicate ourselves to horrible entities whose motivations we are literally not capable of understanding.
In the Lovecraftian universe, scientific progress goes fire -> smelting -> information technology -> understanding of quantum mechanics -> sacrificing innocents on a bloody stone to appease Shub-Niggurath.
Key to the assumptions of most science fiction is the idea that at no point are we going to realise that our framework - rationality, the scientific method - just doesn't work, and we're never going to hit a problem that human beings cannot ever hope to understand, even for a moment, let alone solve. That our brains are capable of anything.
And that's why Lovecraftiana works so well for geek culture in 2015; because we're starting to see those things cropping up in the real world, and they scare the crap out of us. Just as the Atomic Horror of the 60s and 70s reflected society's fears about mass destruction, and Charlie has persuasively suggested that Lovecraft's work was a reaction to the discovery of the size of the universe, Lovecraftian fiction right now echoes the lack of control we're starting to understand we have over complex, non-linear systems.
Any programmer who has suddenly realised that he can't fit all of the code he's working on into his head understands Lovecraft's concept of knowledge that the human mind can't process. And anyone who knows, say, that we literally can't untangle all the ways that Greece's debt intertwines with the rest of the financial market, or that sufficiently deep datasets in places like Google and Facebook will produce results that we are utterly incapable of truly understanding, gets the terror of realising that there's something big and alien out there that we just aren't smart enough to understand.
In the real world, we'll probably find a way to get a handle on that stuff; we'll develop better tools for understanding complex systems, and we'll untangle things that look irrevocably wrapped right now. But there's always that fear: what if we can't? What if our brains just won't do this? What if the system we're looking at is fundementally not subject to rationality?
That's a fear that programmers, scientists and geeks of all kinds can understand. And where there's a common fear, there will be a genre to tell stories about it, and to help us understand it.
Charlie's pioneered that genre, and I think we'll be seeing a lot more storytellers like me following along in his wake soon.
If you'd like to watch HOWTO: Demon Summoning, in which a disgruntled startup founder, Dave, has been screwed by his new CEO and has decided to get even via the power of demonology - and a handy YouTube tutorial on summoning dark entities to do his bidding - you can watch it on YouTube right now. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!
And if you'd like to read more of my squamous, blasphemous ranting on things Man Was Not Meant To Know, you can find me on Twitter at @hughhancock. Cheers!