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The Jennifer Morgue cover

Eventually, serial characters find themselves growing hoary and out of touch with their time. Having passed the half-century mark, James Bond is no exception. A relic of the cold war, Bond has become an anachronism is this hyperkinetic, 24-7 world, and it is difficult for us—jaded, cynical, and information-saturated—to view his antics with the requisite level of disbelief. To rescue a character from this dismissive ennui, there are two options: strip away the bloated infrastructure and reboot the series (ably managed by 2006’s refreshing Casino Royale with Daniel Craig) or embrace the canon as gospel and transform it. The Jennifer Morgue, Charles Stross’s sequel to 2004’s The Atrocity Archives, abstains from such a reworking: while it continues to mash up H. P. Lovecraft mythology and Gizmodo-ready geek speak, it is also thoroughly possessed by the archetypal spirit of Bond.

Bob Howard, überhacker and resident network administrator for the Laundry, has been promoted since the events of The Atrocity Archives, though such advancement hasn’t shielded him from the labryinthian tangle of bureaucratic auditing that pervades his organization, Britian’s ultrasecret occult agency. Sent to a monthly joint-spook-agency meeting, Bob meets Ramona Random, an enigmatic femme fatale wrapped in a level three glamour. After she extricates him from an all too soul-sucking PowerPoint Presentation,[1] he learns she is his Black Chamber contact (that group being the CIA’s version of the Laundry, though more inclined to solve magical problems with extreme prejudice than its English counterpart) and they’ve been tapped for a secret mission to save the world.

Mad billionaire Ellis Billington (charismatic chairman of the TLA Systems Corporation) has discovered a way to talk to the dead, and the one he’s looking to chat with is a DEEP SEVEN (bureaucratic Laundry speak for one of Lovecraft’s Old Ones). Using a converted deep-sea recovery platform, Billington is attempting to raise the corpse from its sunken position in the Puerto Rican Trench. The occult agencies of the world are more than a little concerned about Billington’s plan but find themselves unable to respond in a traditional fashion. Why? Because Billington has protected himself with a geas.

Through a remotely delivered briefing, Angleton, Bob’s boss, explains the situation:

[Billington is] a player, Bob. He knows exactly what he’s doing and how to work around our strengths. He stays away from continental landmasses, uses games of chance to determine his actions, sleeps inside a Faraday cage aboard a ship with a silver-plated keel. He’s playing us to a script. I’m not at liberty to tell you what it is, but [the person to take him on] has to be you, not Ramona, not anyone else. (64)

In short, Billington has forced his environment to adhere to the format of a James Bond film. He’s cast himself as the villain, and anyone attempting to stop him has to assume the archetypal mantle of the hero. Bob, in a bit of casting lunacy, has just been drafted as Bond.

From there, things start to get really strange.

Stross isn’t throwing all these disparate elements into a blender, whipping them on “spume” and “seethe,” simply to overload his text Kenji Siratori-style; nor is he mixing otaku[2] levels of tech fetishism, deconstructive criticism of Ian Fleming’s canon, and the sort of eldritch fever dreams that plague the librarians at Miskatonic University's Orne Library simply to fill a gaping hole on the genre shelves. The Jennifer Morgue came out of his head simply because he’s (a) a geek who watched too many (b) Bond films as a kid while reading about (c) Lovecraft’s doomed characters. Which, in a way, probably describes a lot of us. Though in Stross’s case, (a) wondered why (b) couldn’t solve (c)’s problems. The result is something like the following (the Laundry version of a Q Branch briefing on a tuxedo's hidden accoutrement):

There’s a USB memory drive preloaded with a forensic intrusion kit hidden in each end of your dickey-bow, a WiFi-finder on your key ring, a roll-up keyboard in your cummerbund, the pen’s got Bluetooth and doubles as a mouse, and there’s a miniaturized Tillinghast resonator in your left heel. You turn it on by twisting the heel through one-eighty degrees; turn it off the same way. Your other heel is just a heel. We were going to hide a Basilisk gun in it but some ass-hat in Export Controls vetoed our requisition because it was going overseas. (146-47)

And, yes, the gear turns out to be integral in saving the world.

Everyone (readers of the book as well as the characters within) is expected to be intimately familiar with the structure and tropes of the prototypical Bond adventure, and the resulting adherence to and deconstruction of said adventure becomes a magico-technological comedy of errors. Calling this book a thriller would be as egregious a whitewash as labeling it horror or filing it in the “technical adventures for boys who fear sunlight as much as an expected core dump” section. The Jennifer Morgue is a delirious collision of the archetypal hero adventure, our modern obsession with flashy technology, and our perpetual fear of the unspeakable unknown. Stross wraps his reverent irreverence with a not entirely tongue-in-cheek warning: not all our monsters are inhuman soul suckers or tentacle-faced alien overlords; some are auditors.

Footnotes

[1] In the spirit of such soul sucking, here are a few PowerPoint-style bullets about the history of The Jennifer Morgue:

• “The Atrocity Archive” (singular) was first published as a serial in Spectrum SF (a short-lived Scottish magazine) from late 2001 to early 2002.

• It was Stross’s first published novel.

Golden Gryphon acquired the book and published it as The Atrocity Archives (plural) in 2004.

• This edition includes an introduction; “The Concrete Jungle," a novella-length adventure wherein a simple cow-counting assignment becomes a deadly and terrifying assessment of the potential abuse of modern surveillance systems; and “Inside the Fear Factory,” an essay about the cold war and Len Deighton.

• “The Concrete Jungle” won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novella.

The Jennifer Morgue includes another afterward (“The Golden Age of Spying,” in which Stross interviews Ernst Stavro Blofeld about the whole James Bond phenomena) and “Pimpf,” a short story in which Bob and his squad of geek occultists save the world from MMORPGs.

[2] Otaku being a degree of fascination that other same-object obsessives find disturbing and creepy.

Mark Teppo lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he writes on the train and in random coffee shops. In 2007, Farrago's Wainscot is serializing his hypertext novel. You may find him on the web at www.markteppo.com.



Mark Teppo lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he writes on the train and in random coffee shops. In 2007, Farrago's Wainscot is serializing his hypertext novel. You may find him on the web at www.markteppo.com.
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