The Big Idea: Charles Stross

Here’s the deal: Charles Stross is awesome and his books are awesome and his Laundry Files series in particular is a hell of a lot of fun. Now Charlie’s here to tell you about The Annihilation Score, the latest installment in the series. You’re gonna have fun. That is all.


The other day (July 7th) was the launch day for “The Annihilation Score”, the sixth novel in the Laundry Files series. Magic is a side-effect of mathematics, Lovecraftian elder gods have noticed us using it and are coming to eat us, but don’t worry: Her Majesty’s Government has a plan for that. There are a lot of committee meetings involved …

I’ve been writing these stories for fifteen years, and while they started as a one-shot gag (a dot-com era hacker geek has fallen into a seedy 1960s British spy thriller: there are tentacles) over time they’ve developed into a complex world. They’ve also changed from a series of pastiches of spy thriller authors, to examinations of different aspects of the fantastic.

If we posit an underlying hard-SF(ish) cause behind various mythological entities — zombies, unicorns, vampires, Cthulhu — how would a government agency *really* handle them? And by “government agency” I’m not discussing the pop culture imagery of two-fisted agents confronting bad guys, but actual functioning (and occasionally dysfunctional) bureaucracies trying to digest the indigestible.

The springboard for “The Annihilation Score” is how the Police, Courts, and Home Office (the British interior ministry in charge of law and order) try to get a handle on a rapidly snowballing superhero problem.

Superheroes are heroic archetypes — the roots of the genre lie in the classical pantheons — the myths of the Roman, Greek, Norse, Ancient Egyptian (and, less commonly, Shinto and Hindu) cultures. Our cultural values are rather different from the classical early Iron age empires, but we still hunger for archetypes. Today we use superheroes to ask questions about human agency — with great power comes great responsibility, after all. But if you cut away the myth-making and archetypical trappings and boil them down to their pragmatic roots, as in *Watchmen*, you find yourself looking at unsavory vigilantes and lynch mob justice.

Superhero stories may be an assertion of human agency in modern fantasy and SF, but bureaucracies are all about the diffusion of responsibility and autonomy. Bureaucracies want interchangeability and impersonal procedures, not unique and irreplacable heroes. The reaction of a real world law enforcement bureaucracy to an outbreak of superheroes won’t be one of gratitude: it’ll be an attempt to bring the hammer down *fast* before the random vigilantes throw grit in the wheels of justice. The only job a bureaucracy can conceive of for a superhero involves wearing a Police uniform and doing it by the book …

… And that’s before we get to the knotty existential question of supervillainy. Most supervillain crime is routine aggro — assault, robbery, and ordinary street crime, only with the dial turned up to 11. After all, most police work is routine. Most crime is spontaneous disorder, and mindless with it. But there are exceptions, and how does a real police force deal with a real Mad Science supervillain?

Criminology is the study of the criminal mind. But the only criminal minds we have available to study are the incompetent ones — the ones who got caught. Successful criminals don’t get caught: they get themselves elected Prime Minister of Italy or Russia and pass laws granting themselves retroactive immunity. (“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”)

Mad Science is more than a matter of putting more amps into the thing on the slab while Igor keeps the kite flying in the thunderstorm: so mad science in the 21st century needs a mad science organization, with a budget, human resources, research assistants, and a monetization strategy. Successful mad science villains are by definition organizational geniuses with a business plan — which means they’re rare, terrifying, and a existential threat.

So let’s bring this thought experiment back into focus on the personal. If you’re Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien of the Laundry, teetering on the edge of a stress-induced nervous breakdown from one too many arguments with demons and tentacle monsters, being seconded to the Home Office to set up and run a new department *might* seem like a rest cure at first. But managing a small, tightly ffocusedPolice unit staffed by superheroes requires a rare combination of personal characteristics, including the ability to deal with unrealistic expectations from above and hero-sized egos from below. It’s almost inevitably going to be immensely stressful, and until you can train up a management team to shoulder some of the workload you’re on your own.

And that’s before a mad scientist calling himself Professor Freudstein robs the Bank of England and the National Library in rapid succession, then embarks on a plan to destabilize the government …


The Annihilation Score: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

23 Comments on “The Big Idea: Charles Stross”

  1. I’ve highly enjoyed, Charlie, the evolution of the Laundry novels over the years. In some ways, they parallel, in my mind, the evolution of the Discworld novels.

  2. Oh my god yes. Now I know what I’ll be reading on my flight home later today. Another reason to like the Big Idea pieces – I had no idea that a new Laundry novel was coming out!

  3. Well, shit, I have missed ALL the Laundry novels! *smacks head* This sounds absolutely fan-bloody-tastic. That’s my holiday reading sorted then, thanks Guv!!

  4. I pre-ordered this a few months back and it arrived in my Kindle library Tuesday. I’m about 2/3 of the way through. As with all the Laundry novels, it’s wonderful. ALMOST AS MUCH FUN AS A SCALZI NOVEL.

  5. The Annihilation Score expands our wonderful glimpses into the Laundry Universe by showing it to us through Dr. Mo O’Brien’s eyes, and the Apocalypse Train Stross started down the tracks early in the series keeps rolling on. Fasten your seatbelts because the Laundry roars on! (less barker-like, I happily devoured this book as soon as it arrived. Please to give Mr. Stross your book monies so he gives us more.)

  6. I too have already read this book and it’s a good addition to the Laundry Files series. Having Mo as the main character gives us another view on this world and on the Laundry that’s interesting and fun. This book also extends the Laundry timeline and furthers the series well. I have a short list of authors I watch for anything they write. Stross has repeatedly earned his place on this list.

  7. The only reason I haven’t read it yet is because I suspect (know) that I’ll end up devouring it in a single sitting and I’m waiting for the weekend.

    There are three authors where I will not only buy all but sight unseen, but plan to devour in a sitting and that would be Charlie Stross, John Scalzi, and Steven Brust. Although in the latter case I’m not able to consume a Khaavren Romance in one sitting. And if I tried, I’d just end up with sores.

  8. I’m waiting for this to arrive at my local bookstore, having put in a special order. Why a B&N wouldn’t stock a new Stross book without a customer request boggles the mind.

  9. Got it, read it, loved it.

    @Lynz – you’ll *love* the Laundry books – enjoy your holiday.

    Best read in order, they all kinda work standalone, but the characters develop from book to book and there are back-references you’ll miss.

    If Charlie has written a bad book, I’ve not found it yet.

  10. Currently kinda broke, or this would already be on my Kindle. As it is, I’m waiting for our library to get off dead center and order it. Proddings with pointed sticks are in process.

  11. I have ready everything by Stross with the exception of the last 2, now 3, Laundry novels and I plan to have those read before the Merchants trilogy starts coming out which I think is next year. So yeah, I’ll be reading this.

  12. My husband doesn’t have a lot of time to read but he’s ripping through the Laundry Files novels at the speed of light. I suspect we’ll be ready for book 6 pretty soon :)

  13. I hadn’t read science fiction for several years until I discovered my “S” authors: Stross, Scalzi and Stephenson. The Laundry Files books are rollicking great fun. I just got my copy. I like the change in POV from Bob to Mo. I nearly howled when I read the name of Mo’s violin!

  14. In a box, waiting for my holidays in a fortnight, are this, and Seveneves. Wife already preparing to be hacked off at me ignoring her and kids.

  15. I didn’t know this was coming out (I just have too many book series to follow), so reading about it here is a nice surprise. Click/buy.

  16. I’ve really loved your Laundry Files and Freyaverse series. I liked the new book which so deftly moved from point A to B, checking off so many boxes along the way. New theme : superheroes.. Mo gets exposure and advancement. Laundry Files gets a new viewpoint. Ramona, Mhari loose ends get tied. Civil Service viewpoint on SoE. So many cheap twists averted. Forward movement towards case Nightmare Green, while keeping the suspense.

    Nevertheless, I have realized I will love it less than some of its predecessors. There are 4 main reasons. Mo’s separation from Bob and the date angle just seemed too facile and underwritten. Mo’s voice has less humor and charm than that of Bob. The villains were not quite as well written as some predecessors. And importantly neither the superhero schtick nor the civil service were sent up much. Perhaps the demands of the book and advancement of plot may have been such that justice could not really be done. Perhaps as you pointed out, you had less childhood exposure to the superhero trope. And I dare say, no one can up my beloved yes Minister on the civil service.

    Nevertheless, this is one for the shelves and I am deeply grateful for the hours of wonderment and pleasure

  17. I’m not sure I can explain just how much I love the Laundry Files and how excited I am that there’s a new one out. Something like the penguins flying in the background of a Muppets scene and the girls screaming when the Beatles got off the plane in New York.

  18. I’d like to add my enjoyment too. Like a couple of the others Stross & Scalzi are on my pre-order instantly list along with Gaiman and Pratchett (although there’s only one more Discworld book to go now sadly). I’d certainly recommend it to other Scalzi fans if you havent already tried any of Charlie Stross’s work. Go to it!

  19. Like all the other commenters, I love the whole series, and the characters grow in such interesting ways. Charlie is great, on the same shelf as Scalzi, Stephenson, and all the other greatsof our time.

  20. Heh. Only marginally on topic, but after the discussion of superheroes and the British Home Office… well, Charles Stross of all people should remember ‘Temps’, even if I don’t believe he was directly involved with that collection.

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