Review: The Atrocity Archives

If we pursue this plan, by late 2006 any two adjacent public CCTV terminals — or private camcorders equipped with a digital video link — will be reprogrammable by any authenticated MAGINOT BLUE STARS superuser to permit the operator to turn them into a SCORPION STARE basilisk weapon. We remain convinced that this is the best defensive posture to adopt in order to minimize casualties when the Great Old Ones return from beyond the stars to eat our brains (273).

This volume includes three pieces: Charles Stross’s eponymous Lovecraftian spy thriller, the Hugo-award winning Concrete Jungle, and “Inside the Fear Factory,” a reflection on spies, the Cold War, Lovecraft, horror, and hackers.

Title: The Atrocity Archives

Author: Charles Stross

ISBN: 0-441-01365-1

Available from and


Turing bridged math and magic before he died. The Laundry, Great Britain’s most secret agency, is one of several waging an occult war against the dark forces that regularly threaten our world. Bob Howard, no barbarian, has been recruited by the Laundry and finds himself facing eldritch horrors and government bureaucracy.

High Point:

Many of us find our lives divided. We may have a mundane job and a more fantastic other or inner life. Perhaps you’re an SF fan, or a fantasy gamer, or a weekend jock, or a Walter Mitty-style daydreamer. Perhaps, like the younger Stross, you work a day job while trying to establish yourself as a writer. Perhaps you enjoy your work, but find that, year to year, more and more, bureaucratic administrivia overshadows the aspects you love. Bob Howard lives in exactly this situation. He must compile petty reports and report to petty officials; the rest of the time he gets to fight monsters. It’s a wonderfully resonant premise.

The Atrocity Archives is entertaining. I prefer the other two pieces in this volume. Concrete Jungle covers much of the same territory as the Archives but it features a more interesting (and original) plot and better characterization, presented in fewer words. Infodump always presents a problem in works with baroque backstories. Too many explanations, in places, weigh down Archives. Jungle handles the problems brilliantly through reports on past horror which are entertaining in their own right.

“The Fear Factory” makes a number of thoughtful comments on its subjects. Lovecraft as an author of spy thrillers? Len Deighton as a creator of horror? Stross argues both cases, and also examines the contrast between spy and hacker reality and the fictions they’ve inspired.

Low Point:

Many of Stross’s works share the same problem. They begin with mind-boggling concepts that resonate with with the real world, but they end like superior episodes of Doctor Who or James Bond. I’m praising with faint damnation here. Many adventure stories have pat endings. They’re still enjoyable. I just find the conclusions disappointing when contrasted with all that has come before.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6. Much of Bob Howard’s world is clearly, intentionally derivative, but Stross has fused various elements into a great playground for a thriller series.

Imagery: 5/6 Stross serves us some memorable images—the appearance of the lamia, for example.

Story: 4/6

Characterization: 4/6. The main character has been written well. Most of the other characters have not been fully realized.

Emotional Response: 5/6.

Editing: 5/6.

Overall score: 5/6

In total, The Atrocity Archives receives 32/42

A sequel, The Jennifer Morgue, has since been released.

Concrete Jungle may be read online. This version differs only slightly from the hardcopy.

On the subject of free writing online, Howard V. Hendrix, the currently VP of the Science-fiction Writers of America, has offered some negative comments (they may be found towards the end of this linked piece). Many writers have posted responses around the ‘Net.

One reply

  1. Complex and rewarding
    I’m slightly biassed, as I live in Milton Keynes, where The Concrete Jungle is set. I had a great time with the story, in part because I live about two miles from the locations Charles Stross describes, and I was able to recognise and visualise the locations in question quite clearly – even down to individual buildings.

    However, even apart from the personal link, I found this to be an excellent book in all aspects. It’s enriched with a subtle blend of in-jokes and humour for computing geek (yes, I’m in that target demographic too), combined with a real understanding of the vagaries of the civil service in this country, (which might resonate a little less with readers outside middle England). None of these, however, will spoil the experience of the non-geek-non-Brit – they’re value-added, not audience-specific, and will largely hold their meaning for anyone.

    I absolutely loved the mixture of ironic work-drudgery, office politics, Lovecraftian horror and a likeable and recognisable central character. This book convinced me to try several others by the same author, and I’ve found that his ideas are among the most vast, mind-stretching concepts I’ve come across in modern sci-fi. This book, and the others which I bought shortly afterwards, have secured Charles Stross a position at the top of my favourite authors list. I hope the sequel, "The Jennifer Morgue", lives up to the high standard – I’ll find out soon!

    By the way, Charles Stross’s journal has some interesting commentary on matters to do with his books and internet happenings in general – he genuinely knows what’s going on, it’s not just book research, and it’s written in a largely accessible and clear way, with a smattering of relevant dry humour. You can find his site – and his journal – at .

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