Charles Stross is probably best known for his singularity-flavoured science fiction, exemplified by the fix-up novel Accelerando (which netted its author an award from the World Transhumanist Association, as well as nominations for more conventional sfnal plaudits). However, he’s unafraid to trek off into different pastures, as The Jennifer Morgue demonstrates – there are sf tropes, plus fantastic and Lovecraftian horror elements, all wrapped up in another genre tradition that Stross has openly expressed his affection for – the classic British spy thriller.
Naturally, Stross being Stross, there-s more than a soupcon of dry humour involved. So we have as our hero one Bob Howard, who is employed as a computer expert (read as “hacker”) by The Laundry, a branch of the British Secret Service devoted to keeping a lid on multidimensional manifestations.
You see, magic is just mathematics, which means that the age of ubiquitous computing has made it very easy for some naive or stupid coder to accidentally invoke a hungry daemon or vengeful demigod, simply by trying to number-crunch the wrong formula. To paraphrase Bob, he’s no necromancer himself, but “he does countermeasures”. Basically, he’s a clean-up artist.
Or at least he used to be – right up until his employers saddled him with some active duty fieldwork, psychically entangled him with a demonically-possessed mermaid-in-mufti, and dispatched him to the Caribbean with instructions to infiltrate the machinations of a megalomaniac corporate uber-villain, complete with gun-toting goons, an immense yacht-fortress and a foul-tempered fluffy white cat.
If that sounds a little obvious, it’s supposed to. In many ways, The Jennifer Morgue is a work of metafiction – a playful, knowing and openly self-confessed deconstruction of James Bond novel and movie plots, mocking them and revelling in them at the same time. Each supporting character is a gag or clichÃ© in his or her own right; for example, Pinky and Brains, a pair of exceptionally camp and gadget-obsessed tech support operatives who furnish Bob with the requisite tools for the task.
And the gadgets themselves, of course; Bob doesn’t get given Bond’s Aston Martin and Walther PPK, but has to make do with a two-seater Smart car and a Treo smartphone that fires silver-jacketed exorcism rounds. Bob’s innate cynicism comes through in the first-person narration, which deflects the outright silliness of the ideas into the realm of tragic comedy and farce and avoids the snake-pit of superficial spoof.
But does it work? Stross chipped into a recent resurgence of internet-based debate regarding the perennial “decline and fall of the genre” meme. In a nutshell, he suggested that one way to grow sf’s readership might be to “pitch for the Slashdot generation”, to write explicitly for an audience of intelligent and geekish outsiders who should (by rights and tradition) be sf literature’s core audience – and would be, if there was more material that flicked the right switches for them.
The Jennifer Morgue seems to encapsulate this demographic targeting, with our hero Bob providing a sympathetic lead to identify with. He hates management, ties and PowerPoint presentations; he shops online for T-shirts emblazoned with internet in-jokes; he is the socially-stunted computer nerd at your office, thrust into an unfamiliar world of deadly intrigue and occult nastiness which he sets about to hack as if it were a defective operating system.
The Jennifer Morgue is a fun book. And it’s funny too, provided you either know the Bond clichÃ©s backwards or youï¿½re a paid-up member of the geek-and-proud subculture – probably doubly funny, should you place at the intersection of those two sets. And therein lies the flaw: The Jennifer Morgue is somewhat exclusive, in that a lot of the in-jokes and post-modernist nudges will fly straight past the average bookstore browser.
However, as a naked pitch for the I.T. crowd whose lingua franca is one of irony, knowing pastiche and a lot of acronyms, it fits the bill perfectly. Only time will tell just how hungry that audience really is for long-form written fiction. But if Stross has surmised correctly, The Jennifer Morgue‘s place in the padded laptop-bags of the techno-elite is already reserved.
[This review originally published in Vector #250; reproduced here with the kind permission of the editors.]