Monday, 11 January 2010

Coop Actually Reads Three Entire Books!

I managed to do something really rare these days and that is to sit down and read not just one (rare enough), not even just two but actually three whole sci-fi novels. First up was "The Atrocity Archives" by Charles Stross. Stross's name is a little bit more obscure in the RPG world than it should be, after all his contributions to White Dwarf's "Fiend Factory" (later immortalised in the love-it-or-hate-it Field Folio) gave AD&D The Githyanki, the Githerzai, the Slaad and the Death Knight.

The Atrocity Archives is a bit of a mixed bag, so in that way quite close to the Fiend Folio. It details "The Laundry", the offshoot of the Second World War-era SOE department that deals with the Cthuloid menace. This isn't a bad idea but certainly based upon The Atrocity Archives (and the bonus novella "The Concrete Jungle") Stross isn't sure whether to play it for laughs by mocking the idiocy of the office workplace and middle management, whether to play it straight with maximum horror, go for a cult appeal by littering the book with 4chan/Slashdot/geek memes or whether it should be homage to HPL or not. The naming of the main character "Bob Howard" grates as well. Add a couple of continuity errors for good measure (at one point Stross describes a, presumably black, helmeted SAS man's eyes as swivelling everywhere like those of a "chameleon on acid" which would be a neat turn of phrase if he hadn't previously mentioned that the visors they wear are opaque - Stross clearly would have benefited from a critical editor) and it's readable but flawed. His included essay that tries to claim that horror and Cold War spy fiction are one and the same seems to be a stretch too far as well.

Much better to my way of thinking was novel #2, Kurt Vonnegut's "The Sirens of Titan". The first Vonnegut I'd ever read and this is a delight - a real black humoured shaggy dog story that's difficult to talk about without spoiling. I'll settle by saying that's the sort of book that you read realising that you've missed obvious hints in earlier bits and upon completion of the last page you should immediately return to page 1 and read it again with full knowledge of the denouement. Recommended.

Book #3 goes totally pulp-tastic with Edgar Rice Burrough's "Mastermind of Mars". Not actually a John Carter novel, instead our hero is Ulysses Paxton, enthusiastic American officer in the Great War who is such a dedicated servant of Mars the God that Mars the Planet rescues him after death and dismemberment on the Western Front and propels him into another "Earthman on Alien Sword-and-Sorcery Planet" tale. If you've read any of the ERB "Warlord of Mars" or the parallel "Venus" series you've read this. Lots of weird stuff including surgical brain swaps, flying belts (with "radium motors" natch for that true pulp weird-science feel) and a surprisingly modern-sounding satirical dig at organised religion.

One thing I like about ERB is that this is fantasy without any concept of Tolkien - I love the works of the South African Brummie but sadly he's just too influential on works that came later and nothing seems to escape his shadow. ERB (like Dunsany) is a great glimpse into a world where Middle Earth never happened and bookshop shelves don't groan under the weight of crap American multi-volume fantasy series detailing the exploits of thinly-disguised modern Americans in sub-JRRT worlds.

That was three books in late November and early December. I'll be surprised if I manage another three this year sadly.


  1. I have a bit of beef with Charlie Stross. I went to his website to ask how, exactly, he envisions "slaad" pronounced. Of course, I never got a reply. Why have a contact form if you won't reply?

    (I always figured it was like "slawed," but it'd be nice to hear it from the horse's mouth.)

  2. I've always read it as "Slarrd" but then I don't think I've ever actually said the word.

  3. I've often been tempted to do a Delta Green game based around The Laundry, not because I'm a huge fan, but because the humour inherent in it would drive the po-faced DG fans insane. Pun sort-of-intended.