The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

The Atrocity Archives is the first of Charles Stross’ Laundry novels which are premised on the idea that alternate dimensions exist and are populated by all sorts of Lovecraftian horrors. The twist is that the magic needed to summon these is a branch of mathematics, which means that anyone with a laptop and an interest in equations could accidentally annihilate Wolverhampton.

Of course, in such a universe, government agencies will exist to keep the dimensional portals closed and ensure that no-one with an interest in equations accidentally does annihilate Wolverhampton. This brings us to The Laundry, an offshoot of Britain’s wartime activities that continues to protect us all from these nameless horrors.

The real brilliance of this novel, however, is that rather than portraying The Laundry as some slick super-spy organisation, Stross assumes that it would operate in the manner of any other Civil Service organisation — bound by bureaucracy, hampered by office politics and obsessed with quality standards.

The Atrocity Archives is comprised of two novellas: The Atrocity Archives and The Concrete Jungle. The hero of both of these stories is Bob Howard, an IT support guy who works for the Laundry and who — foolishly — expressed an interest in active service.

In The Atrocity Archives, we follow Bob’s first forays into active service and see him quickly finding himself out of his depth and facing interdimensional Nazis, Islamist terrorists, elder gods and a wormhole to a dying universe. In The Concrete Jungle, Bob finds himself facing a deadly combination of CCTV and office politics.

Both are played straight with the humour deriving from the juxtaposition of the sort of mundane bureaucracy with which we are all familiar with horrifying alien intelligences. This mixture of the mundane and the weird keeps you off balance and allows Stross to insert all sorts of strangeness without it ever becoming too unbelievable.