Quantum of NightmaresCharles Stross (Tordotcom 978-1-25083-937-4, $27.99, 368 pp, hc) January 2022.
by Charles Stross Quantum of Nightmares is the 11th in the Laundry Files books, a series whose hallmark is the blending of tropes, motifs, and narrative conventions from the supernatural horror and spy intrigue/crime/thriller genre families. At first these struck me as light entertainment, part Lovecraftian-Gothic, part secret agent adventure, with a generous dollop of social-political satire, all delivered with an edgy sense of humor. and ancient. So it took me a while to recognize the genuinely nightmarish side of Stross’s work, a no-joke sensibility driven by an utterly amusing recognition of the horror that exists in the world outside of the books.
It’s not exactly a Laundry Files book, though, and not just because it’s missing laundry agent Bob Howard and his colleagues and his agency. Starting with the immediate predecessor of this volume, Dreaming of dead lies, the world of Laundry has evolved: previously hidden supernatural forces have burst into public life. The magic is everywhere abroad; cops, crooks and overpowered civilians abound; an undead god rules the government of Britain; and his new management regime remade England in the image of the late 18th century, with public executions for minor offences, heads on stakes and vast and unforgiving socio-economic inequalities. (The crossover started in earnest with The Maze Clue2018.)
We are alerted to this situation on the front page, when Mary MacCandless, on her way to a gig as a fake nanny, ‘stopped to admire the glass and chrome skull rack on Tyburn…. Most of the niches were still empty, but several lone heads stared blindly from the top row.’ ‘harmful and sad deeds’. ”n’pathetic last moments” of the performance (free DVD included). Shades of Tyburn, pamphlets on hanging and The Newgate Calendar. Mary poses as a temp agency nanny as part of a scheme to kidnap the four children of a transhuman (i.e., superpowered) couple from the police department. The snatch quickly descends into a nationwide ‘red chief ransom’ debacle when the Banks kids turn out to be wannabe transhumans themselves, with a range of disruptive powers and a fragile sense of timing and how to deploy them, especially in the tempting environment of a toy store. Luckily, Mary has more than a touch of transhumanity herself, allowing her to barely escape the streak of damage her proteges do every step of her escape.
Once again, the structural model is a variant of the hug of crime, and Mary is only the first of a set of plot threads that intertwine and eventually converge into a single, tangled narrative as the relationships and patterns are revealed and connected. (I remembered a comedy thriller by Carl Hiaasen – in particular Girl Razor, which I recently read.) Elsewhere in the tangle of the plot: At a low-end branch of the FlavrsMart supermarket chain, Amy, a human relations employee, faces a particularly nasty case of corporate misconduct. employed under the basilisk eye of his immediate boss, whose primary management skill is terrorizing his underlings. At the corporate headquarters (and lair of the supervillains) of the Bigge Organization, Eve Starkey, personal assistant and effective second-in-command to its owner (we pray) late billionaire-playboy-mage, peels back the corporate layers and extra-corporate organizations left behind after efforts to Dreaming of dead lies. It turns out that Rupert Bigge was driven by a much uglier set of motives than greed, ego, and the pursuit of evil sex. She decides to call on her little brother Imp and his little gang of transhuman Lost Kids as irregular troops in her investigations. Eventually, ex-cop turned private sector thief Wendy Deere, whose adventures in the previous book helped send Rupert to his presumed fate, goes undercover at Amy’s FlavrsMart branch, where ”product tampering ” in the processed meat department has been found to include human DNA.
All of this eventually becomes part of Bigge’s non-commercial pursuits (including his ownership of a medieval estate, complete with castle, dungeons, sacrificial chapel, and swarm of minions), the kidnapping of Banks’ children, and the confluence of various practices commercial. and the vile welfare policies of the new leadership.
It’s with the last of these that the book leaves the realm of entertainment-grade supernatural horror and vomiting-inducing splatterpunk. (Think of the latter as a triggering warning.) While supernatural horror motifs are often metaphorical/psychological, this is where real material evil and real horrors present themselves in ways that seem less imagined. This is also where the book’s motifs veer into science fiction: Right next to the multidimensional Lovecraftian metaphysical scheme that supports demon worship and soul-eating brain parasites lies a dystopian political-economic landscape. The means by which FlavrsMart improves profit margins on processed meat products while simultaneously reducing labor overhead and enforcing company discipline is through literal machines used to automate labor living work and turning vulnerable and economically useless people into raw materials – Sweeney Todd meets Soylent Green in the land of zombified meat puppets. A key to this is a new socio-legal category:
De-emphasized was the current euphemism for thrown in the trash. It singled out people whom the new management considered to be of no (or minimal) value to the company. They had no money, they couldn’t keep a job, and they didn’t even absorb resources into a useful way…. [by] generator of economic activity and jobs for quarries…. But the de-emphasized have had the temerity to try to take care of themselves in a way that has resisted monetization.
these miserable are the source of the rogue DNA in the literal and symbolic meat grinder that is the central nightmare of the book, and the anger that fuels this vision is what elevates this (and much of recent Stross) above the horrors secondary. (To be fair, that anger also drives much of Stross’ fun side, which is increasingly wildly Swiftian.) It’s not that the thriller side isn’t thrilling, but what sticks in mind isn’t so much the carnage after the last zombie, necromancer, and priest of the bloodthirsty deity is hexed to death. superior. Instead, it’s the accountants and financial wizards and the heartless nastiness conjured up by the magic of their spreadsheets, cost-benefit analyzes and PowerPoint slides that haunt my restless dreams of the day.
Editor Russell Letson is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He’s been hanging out in the world of SF since childhood and writing about it since his grad school days. In the meantime, he has published a good deal of business, technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book on the Hawaiian slack key guitar.
This review and others like it in the April 2022 issue of Place.
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