So, while this week sees the first publication of "The Nightmare Stacks", it also sees the paperback publication (on both sides of the Atlantic!) of "The Annihilation Score". And as is my custom these days, I figure it's time to post a brief essay about the novel. Keep reading below the fold if you dare; here be spoilers!
There comes a point in every series of books when the author has to ask whether the series is about a single person (the protagonist) or the setting. The Laundry Files are no different. While the first book was very clearly about Bob Howard, hapless geek and accidental occult counterintelligence agent, an ensemble cast slowly assembled itself around him and then intermittently stole the show. And after five books in a row about Bob, narrated in the first person/present tense from his point of view, I thought it would be a good idea to step outside his skin and show the reader what the back of his head looks like, so to speak.
A point that was becoming clear by book 3 or book 4 is that Bob is an unreliable narrator. This was (spoiler!) originally an accident, but then a bonus. When I began writing "The Atrocity Archive" I had no plan to write a series; the book unpacked itself organically, and a lot of what came out was played deliberately for laughs. About four years later I was called on (ahem, paid money to) write a sequel, "The Jennifer Morgue", and I decided that it'd be fun to make Bob four years older, wiser, and a bit more senior. And of course I'd forgotten some minor details, and I'm terrible about re-reading my own work and remembering what I'd done. So inconsistencies began to creep in.
How do you deal with inconsistencies? Well, in "The Fuller Memorandum" I introduced a framing conceit, that these first-person narratives are Bob's working journals, kept by his employer so that if he dies in the line of duty you, the postulated reader, the person stepping into his still-warm boots, have access to some of his hard-won knowledge. This is also a neat way of sidestepping the essential loss of tension implicit in a first-person narrative (you know that the narrator survives to the end—unless, as in "Glasshouse" or Mira Grant's "Feed", they're murdered part-way through recording their experiences). Bob is ageing and learning his place in the institution as he is promoted, and sometimes he learns that what he was told, or inferred, as a junior employee, is flat-out wrong. But Bob is also ageing and maturing; we start the series with him as a callow twenty-something, and by the time we reach THE ANNIHILATION SCORE he's nearly forty, married, much more cynical, and thinks he's a grown-up now.
Boy is he wrong.
Like most of us, Bob has a near-infinite capacity for self-deception. (We're all the heroes of our inner narrative, after all.) He's also been getting increasingly powerful throughout the series. With great power comes great self-delusion, and all is not well in Bob's world; in particular his spouse, Dr Dominique O'Brien, aka Agent CANDID—who has been levelling up alarmingly herself—is having trouble controlling her ill-omened and murderously inclined violin, not to mention coping with Bob's increasing necromantic abilities. For the first few years they've got along by carefully ignoring the more dangerous aspects of each other's life, and by providing mutual support: but when two monsters live together, the question to ask is, how long will it be before one of them tries to eat the other?
Which brings us to the red wedding sequence at the end of "The Rhesus Chart" and the set-up for "The Annihilation Score", which is there to give us a whole different perspective on Mo, on Bob, and on what's going on in the background that Bob is oblivious to.
Now, I will note that quite a few readers seemed to absolutely hate "The Annihilation Score"; they specifically disliked Mo, accusing her of being bitchy, nasty, aggressive, self-centered ... all the epithets that get hurled at assertive, competent, strong women (and especially managers) in day to day life. Previously the series focussed on Bob, a cuddly (if somewhat lethal) turbo-geek everyman with a neat line in self-deprecating humor. Mo, in contrast, is caught in the career woman trap: required to be a pretty adornment to her husband or partner, but expected to be vastly more proficient and competent than a man in the same occupational niche just to be seen as average. She is, if anything, the Ginger Rogers to Bob's Fred Astaire: "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels." The stress is grinding her into the dirt, so much so that she's riding a bobsleigh down a run towards an explosion or a breakdown, or both. In other words, she's not written to be a nice person, or even one the reader necessarily empathizes with (if the reader is wanting a warm bath of self-congratulatory affirmation): she's written to be a professional, trapped in a deadly situation and trying to make the best of the desperately bad hand she's been dealt by fate. (And when she develops a superpower, by way of dramatic irony it turns out to be a paranormally enhanced version of one that women over 40 usually find themselves suffering from whether they want it or not.)
Lest you think this is a rather brutal treatment of her, let me remind you that Agent CANDID was the James Bond figure of "The Jennifer Morgue", and Bond was not a spy—he was a state-sanctioned executioner. This is the position Mo effectively starts from in the series (after I realized with a big "oops" that I'd written her as a girl in the tower cliche, but had also given her a plausible motivation for making something more of herself). Anyway, throughout the entire series Bob's wife is not a helpmeet: she's a professional killer and arguably even deadlier than he is. She props Bob up and provides a shoulder for crying on from time to time, as he does for her in return, but the domestic tranquility Bob thinks he's found at home with her is a comforting illusion they both connive at and when the disguise is ripped away the reality turns out to be somewhat darker. Think "Mr and Mrs Smith" with vampires, zombies, and ... superheroes ...
So, to "The Annihilation Score" itself.
I've long had a fondness for superhero fic, but my background lore in the field was warped by growing up in 1970s Britain. Marvel and DC Comics were not widely distributed and din't show up in the sort of newsagent I had access to. Instead, my reading was skewed towards 2000AD, and biased by British TV—including interminable re-runs of the Adam West "Batman" series. Oh, and a dose of Greek and Roman mythology, which taps into the same deep wellsprings as the modern superhero mythos—asking questions about the limits of human agency and the archetypes of human existence and the effects of granting limitless power to limited, flawed personalities. Given the Laundry Universe has it's own post-Lovecraftian eschatological imperative—as the stars come into alignment magic becomes easier and there are random outbreaks of power—it's easy enough to see how someone who wakes up invisible one morning might think herself possessed by a demon, or cursed by an evil magician ... or become a superhero.
The current cycle of Laundry Files novels is exploring and pastiching different contemporary fantasy subgenres, from unicorns ("Equoid") to vampires ("The Rhesus Chart") and elves ("The Nightmare Stacks"). "The Annihilation Score" is the superhero novel. With increasing numbers of people waking up with superpowers, a subset turn to crime while others—presumably educated on superhero comics and contemporary culture—turn to vigilantism: lycra body suits, punching out alleged criminals, damaging the evidence and crime scenes, intimidating witnesses, resulting in mistrials. The Home Office—the British interior ministry in charge of policing and prisons—hates that sort of thing. And so Mo, still reeling from her first encounter with a supervillain in public and the loss of her cover identity, is detached from the Laundry, reassigned to the Home Office under cover, and set to establishing the Transhuman Police Coordination Force—an under-budgeted over-worked public-relations-oriented excuse for a superhero police team, established to take the more tractable vigs in hand and find a lawful and acceptable outlet for their enthusiasm. Mo is given three months and a fraction of the necessary resources to set up an agency that will field the official government superhero team as special constables (normal duration of training: two years) ... and meanwhile she comes under enormous pressure to hunt down and apprehend the ominously super-competent criminal mastermind whose calling card, left at the scene of their crimes, is tagged "Professor Freudstein".
So you probably won't be surprised to learn that the original elevator pitch for the book was "a pessimistic downbeat literary exploration of one woman's simultaneous mid-life, career, marital, and nervous breakdown (with superheroes)". Although it's leavened a bit by the comedy element that runs through the Laundry files: Mo herself doesn't have the same sense of humour as Bob (although over almost a decade together lots of Bob-isms have rubbed off on her), so she isn't consciously aware of it, but she's fallen into a classic Ragtag Bunch of Misfits plot with an entirely different elevator pitch: "Bob's exes form a superhero team and Fight Crime".
Finally, there's a serious (ish) memo embedded in the background conceit: that the age of the Mad Scientist is over. In the 20th, and even more the 21st century, Mad Science is a team effort, not something that can be left to one guy (or gal) and their minion in a leaky castle; rather than look for a Mad Scientist, you should always look for a Mad Science Multinational ... or a shadowy quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization with special powers to do something unspeakable in the name of the Defense of the Realm. Because by the time "The Annihilation Score" takes place the onset of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is becoming noticable to government agencies other than the Laundry, and even if they don't quite understand what's going on they know that they disapprove strongly, and want it to stop, and will stop at nothing to make it go away.
Real spoilers, now: Bob and Mo don't really feature in "The Nightmare Stacks" (which comes out this week, and is mostly about Alex the PHANG, a girl named Cassie, and something called CASE NIGHTMARE RED). You'll have to wait for "The Delirium Brief" in June 2017 to find out how their relationship counseling sessions go down and whether they manage to get over each other's problems before the end of the world.
Incidentally, you can buy "The Annihilation Score" here: