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Minireview: The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex is the latest book in the “Laundry Files” series of books, which originally introduced us to Bob Howard (not his real name): a geeky employee of the ultra-secret British organization dubbed “The Laundry”, tasked with preventing global occult doomsday scenarios while keeping expenses within budget and signing off (in triplicate) on all actionable items. The previous book in the series, “The Fuller Memorandum”, dealt with the past history of Bob’s creepy boss, Angleton. This book, in its turn, partly deals with the Laundry itself. Bob is shocked to find out that (despite the total denial of such), the Laundry seems to employ “external assets” at times. Even more worryingly, the Laundry itself seems to be just a part of something larger and more complicated. How does Bob find this out? By being considered for promotion, of course.

The actual main plot concerns an investigation into the actions of a new U.S. televangelist superstar, who seems to be (among other things) worryingly close to the current British Powers That Be. Can’t have that. Cue action for Bob, with the adrenaline junkie “Persephone Hazard” (also certainly not a real name) and her commando sidekick Johnny MacTavish along for the ride. Or maybe it’s the other way around. This ends up involving a trip to the States, and some careful coordination with the Laundry’s U.S. counterpart, the “Black Chamber”. It also ends up involving occult weirdness, gunfire, and all sorts of demonic forces… but hey, it’s a Laundry novel, that’s par for the course. The main villain has understandable motives and is suitably villainous at the same time (in addition to being the leader of an evangelical superchurch and therefore moral pond scum, he’s also consorting with Things Best Not Consorted With). The action flows quite nicely, though it jumps between several viewpoints now and then. We get a first real glimpse of the Black Chamber, which turn out to be a lot creepier than previously suspected… and there’s also the new revelations about the very nature of the Laundry itself to contend with.

It’s a fun read and a good addition to a so-far quite excellent (if lightweight) series of books. Can’t really find much to fault here, as long as you consider this good light entertainment and not deep literature. If you’re seriously religious you’ll probably find a lot of depictions of evangelicals here to be a bit insulting… but let’s face it, if you’re deeply religious it’s unlikely that you’ll touch books like this with a long stick, to begin with. Me, I’m fine with people making fun of evangelical “send us more money!” superchurches. They deserve it. And then some.

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Minireview: The Laundry

“Never cross the line of a pentacle or summoning grid. Remember, incomplete pentacles emit tentacles.”

The Laundry is a roleplaying adaptation of Charles Stross’ “The Laundry Files” novels, based on the same core mechanic as Call of Cthulhu (BRP) and written (among others) by Gareth Hanrahan of Paranoia fame. Since the books have been describes as “Cthulhu meets Dilbert, with a dash of Paranoia”, all that is quite apt. I’ll say this up front: it’s among the best, if not the best, book-into-rpg adaptation I’ve ever read.

For people who haven’t read the books: the stories deal with the life and times of one Bob Howard (not his real name), an employee in Her Majesty’s Occult Service, more properly known as “The Laundry”. Operating in the U.K., it tries to keep the country safe from supernatural horrors, while at the same time fighting the more tangible horrors of budget cuts, (literally) nightmarish bureaucracy, clueless supervisors and antiquated equipment. So yes, Dilbert meets Cthulhu. Many of the alien horrors here are quite explicitly from the Cthulhu mythos, though there is a twist: in this world, magic and mathematics are inseparable, and if you do clever simulations with computers you risk summoning something from Dimension X to eat your brain on the side. The general public is blissfully unaware of this, of course, so the Laundry has its hands full trying to quell demonic incursions caused by clueless hackers. Or cultists, can’t forget those.

So, it’s Cthulhu set in a modern-day environment where you’re actually working for a government agency (kinda sorta like Delta Green), but unlike DG this one is very British. It’s also not a rogue agency and actually has a budget… though it’s a very skimpy one. The books are heavy on the humor side, and the game mirrors that. It’s not a joke game, but there is a heavy humor element involved – witness the cover in which a Laundry agent fends off zombie hordes in a cubicle office, while wearing an XKCD t-shirt. Pop culture references are everywhere here, and a lot of the humor depends on being aware of them.

Gamewise, it uses the venerable old BRP engine. Now, this is both good and bad. Good because BRP is definitely in the “if it’s not broke don’t fix it!” department, it’s been the engine of choice for Cthuluoid games for decades now. Conversion of Cthulhu modules into Landry ones is (at least mechanically) easy, and experienced Cthulhu players will feel right at home. On the minus side, the engine is a bit old and creaky in places, and the Sanity mechanic as “mental hit points” is something that is done better by many other systems. The system used here is mainly straight-up BRP, with some expansions to handle the magic-via-math framework of the books.

The book is well organized and is a great read. It’s damn funny in places and presents the material in a way that makes things easy to follow. The artwork is nothing brilliant, but solidly in the “good enough” category. The beginning of the book concentrates on the mechanical details of creating a character, along with the BRP mechanical details. After that we get a huge pile of detail on the Laundry, along with a wonderfully byzantine organization diagram, a list of key NPCs (along with pics), some “ingame” case file notes, a list of antagonists (otherworld horrors, cultists, and other fun stuff). There is also a fantastic section on CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which is Laundry-speak for the end of the world, the time when the Stars Finally Are Right, so you could actually run a game series set around that. It probably wouldn’t be a very happy game series, but the book does give you the tools with it. Finally, we get three scenarios: “Going Down to Dunwich” which is your basic intro scenario, and not a bad one at that (the PCs get sent to a seashore village for a training session, and things… don’t quite go as planned). The scenario gets plus points for some quite clever red herrings, especially aimed at experienced Cthulhu players. Assuming things here might just get you killed (or worse). The second scenario is “A Footnote”, which is a short romp which can be plugged into the middle of pretty much any Laundry game. It’s ok, but nothing awesome. Lastly we get “The Greys”, in which the PCs investigate an alien which (reportedly) appeared in a local pub and then vanished. It’s the most complex of the three scenarios and also the best; figuring out what the hell is actually going on will need a bit of work, and the final answers aren’t all that happy ones.

As I noted in the beginning, I really liked this book. It captures the feel of the books near-perfectly, and (like the books) is a very good and at times very funny read. The presentation is excellent, and while I could quibble a bit with BRP as the engine, there is no doubt that it works. As a game, being agents of a government agency is a great mechanism for giving a game structure, and gripes about “what is this crappy mission and can’t we just go home instead?” become perfectly valid in-game, also. GMs who are fans of Paranoia also get a great excuse to throw some bizarre paperwork at the players. In triplicate, and to be signed in blood.

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Minireview: The Fuller Memorandum, by Charles Stross

The Fuller Memorandum is the third novel in the “Laundry” series, detailing the travails of Bob Howard, an emlpoyee in the U.K.’s top-secret “Laundry” unit, charged with countering supernatural threats to the country (and the world, in general). It’s been characterized as “Dilbert meets Cthulhu”, which is quite apt; while not totally a humor series, it dips heavily into (black) humor territory, especially when detailing the bureaucratic and under-staffed life within the Laundry. Filing the proper paperwork, in triplicate, is at least as critical as killing the latest Cthulhuoid horror.

This is the darkest installment in the series to date. While there is humor sprinkled throughout (“NecronomiPod”, for example), the back story is bleak and approaches the Laundry’s CODE NIGHTMARE GREEN scenario: the end of the world, when horrors from Outside invade Earth and eat everyone’s brains. Or suchlike fun. Things start off with Bob’s mysterious and cadaverous boss, Angleton, going missing. This escalates to Russian spooks tailing and approaching Bob out of the blue, a (presumed) cult trying to kill/kidnap him, and his wife Mo needing a recovery after a nasty assignment in Amsterdam (which may be related to events). Somehow, a mysterious Fuller Memorandum is also missing, and multiple parties assume Bob knows where it is. Problem is, Bob doesn’t even know what it is, let alone where, and he finds himself on an urgent timetable to trace it down before Very Bad Things happen.

It’s a good fun, and a fun one (like the two previous ones). Sure, it’s firmly in the “light entertainment” territory, but it’s good light entertainment. There are lots of pop culture jokes and references sprinkled all over, and the main plot is interesting (with a few nice twists). Well worth a read – but do read the previous two books first.

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Minireview: Wireless, by Charles Stross

Wireless is a short story collection from Charles Stross. It’s a very mixed bag, both quality-wise and with regard to genre and theme. Some of the stories here have been published before in the previous “Toast” collection, while most haven’t seen print in book form before (as far as I know).

The stars here are the longer pieces: “A Colder War” (published previously in “Toast”) asks the question “what if the Cthulhu mythos was real and the world’s intelligence organizations had been aware of it for a very long time now?”). It’s bleak, as befitting a Cthulhu tale, and I can’t help loving a story which uses terms like “weaponized shoggoths”. The second star here is a newer story, “Palimpsest”, 2010 Hugo Award winner for “best novella”. It’s an intricate time travel tale which goes into directions not many other time travel tales do: what are the real implications of an organization having the capability to travel through time?

The rest are somewhat shorter pieces, and range from the serious to the whimsical. I liked most of them, though the Wodehouse-imitation “Trunk and Disorderly” left me a bit cold. There is a Laundry short story here too (titled “Down on the Farm”), and it’s good fun but nothing really brilliant.

It’s a pretty nice collection, with a “something for everyone” approach. The eclectic style switches are both a boon and a bane, since the variety does pretty much guarantee that everyone will find something here they like, but it does leave a somewhat jumbled impression. On the other hand, “A Colder War” and “Palimpsest” alone are worth the price of admission.

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Minireview: The Revolution Business, by Charles Stross

Charles Stross’ “The Merchant Princes” series is quite entertaining, but unfortunately it’s also a bit spotty in quality. The main idea is great: a transdimensional feudally organized criminal family / aristocracy, a young woman living in the U.S. who discovers that her relatives are… not from around here, the responses of the U.S. military and intelligence organizations to the fact that other dimensions exist and they can cross over (to whatever “secure” facility) easily… it makes for good story. And sure, the first few books are great. It stumbles a bit on the third, but the fourth and this fifth book are a bit more solid again. However, there are some problems.

So, The Revolution Business continues the tale of Miriam Beckstein, ex-journalist and now-interdimensional escapee and potential contender for a crown (much to her dismay). The Clan is under attack by both “local” revolutionaries, internal dissident factions and the U.S. intelligence machinery, and things aren’t looking too good. Miriam hears that her being pregnant has other implications than just 8 more months of physical discomfort, and is not sure how to deal with that. Meanwhile, various smaller factions look for an opening into what used to be “Clan business”.

On the plus side, the action mostly flows smoothly along, and many of the cultural shocks Miriam still gets from the Clan way of life are amusing. I also liked the fact that the author goes into the implications of what (limited) interdimensional travel would mean “in the real world”, like he did in the earlier books also. It’s a fast and relatively fun read. I also found the links to Dick Cheney (here under code name WARBUCKS) and George Bush (BOY WONDER) quite amusing, though they do date the book a bit.

On the minus side… it’s all a bit rushed. I kept losing that of who is who, the New London sections seem totally unrelated to anything else, and the spotlight shifts a bit too much from place to place. Also, the book begins with the resolution of one cliffhanger and ends with yet another cliffhanger. That’s not a strictly bad thing, more of a literary technique, but it does underline the fact that this is just one chapter, and in no way a stand-alone story in any way.

In the end, it was a decent read but inferior to the first books in the series. The end cliffhanger does promise some big changes though, so we’ll see how it goes.

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Minireview: Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross

I seem to be reading a lot of Heinlein-inspired books all the sudden. Not intentionally, mind you, Charles Stross is a kick-ass writer and I generally try to get my hands on all his books, Saturn’s Children is just his latest that I’ve managed to grab. It’s also clearly influenced by Heinlein’s Friday (and by his earlier “juveline” books).

The story is more than a bit confusing (and that’s perhaps its greatest fault). The hero(ine) is a sexbot named Freya; in this future, humanity has just… vanished and all the inhabitants of the solar system are “robots” of one sort or the other. What exactly happened to the humans is never quite made clear. Maybe they commited mass suicide, maybe they went off somewhere, maybe they are all lurking in some hidden fortress. In any case, humanity is long gone and the stuff of legends and rumors – and robots made for (human) sexual pleasure are also effectively made obsolete. So she does what she can to get by, running odd jobs and trying to dodge the vicious robot aristocracy that generally runs things.

Freya is one of a multitude of copies of a certain base template and keeps in touch with her “sisters” now and then. Suddenly, she lands in hot water with a local aristocrat, gets a call for help from one of her sisters, and is also offered a job. Things escalate, and soon she’s running for her life across the solar system, dodging killer robot ninja dwarves and stopping now and then for some steamy robot sex. Yes, really.

It’s a fun romp, and as usual for Stross contains a lot of in-jokes. However, the story is all over the place, and with all the implanted memories going around, can be pretty confusing to follow at times. The pacing is also a bit uneven.

Worth a read, especially if you like early Heinlein; this is a worthy homage to that style. For Stross it’s perhaps a bit under-par, but that’s comparing to a very high standard.

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Minireview: The Merchants' War, by Charles Stross

The Merchant’s War is the fourth installment in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series. It’s pretty lightweight, but I’ve found it a lot of fun. This fourth book seems more solid after the somewhat all-over-the-place third one, and the story rolls along – though the books are less and less standalone. Don’t bother reading these books out of order, they won’t make any sense.

The story continues to tell events mostly from the viewpoint of Miriam. After an aborted forced marriage to a halfwit feudal Gruinmarkt prince, she’s on the run again… and this time from her “own” family (among others). There is a royal coup going on, and the Mafia-like “merchant princes” are on the defensive on two different worlds – since the authorities are starting to catch on in “our” world, too. So… lots of fighting, world-walking, and dodging bullets. Miriam also has a new serious personal problem, which she’s mostly unaware of… until the end.

It’s nice to see the near-omnipotent “Family” of the earlier books made vulnerable, it makes for good story. Sometimes the action switches a bit too much between multiple viewpoints and gets confusing, but mostly I found this to be a fun read. While the first two books of this series remain the best, this is still good entertainment. Watching Stross juggle the “real-world” implications of “dimension-walking” is always good fun.

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Minireview: Toast, by Charles Stross

Toast is a collection of Stross’ older short stories. You can clearly see ideas and influences here that he later expanded and used in his novels. In particular, Lobsters later got expanded into the first chapter of Accelerando. The vision of virtual reality and such as the “next frontier” is one that he has used a lot, too.

The stories vary in quality, but all are at least “ok”. Standouts include the excellent near-future Cthulhu story A Colder War and the clever Antibodies, but there’s a lot of other good stuff here, too. In all fairness his novels are better, but this collection is well worth reading (especially so if you already are a fan of his books).

Some of the stories are already quite dated, as noted by the author in the afterword. That’s the problem when you write about high-tech… it becomes “retro” faster than you can blink.

Pick this one up if you like Stross. Cthulhu fans may also want to read the book just for A Colder War, it’s a fun extrapolation of At the Mountains of Madness.

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Minireview: Halting State, by Charles Stross

Charles Stross is a great writer who manages to convey a lot of heavy-duty ideas within (at times) quite action-oriented and fast-to-read plots. I think there are two classes of books that he writes: the “serious” stuff (Singularity Sky, Glasshouse, etc), and the “fun” stuff (the Merchants’ War series, Atrocity Archives, etc). Halting State is firmly in the lightweight & fun category, even though it does contain some musings on the role of pervasive wireless connectivity and such.

The plot revolves around near-future MMORPGs and the culture(s) around them. If the word “MMORPG” doesn’t ring any bells, this is not the book for you. In general, I found this book extremely funny, but lots of the jokes depend on knowledge of computers, networking and various kinds of gaming. At one point, a character yells “they’re tunneling TCP/IP over AD&D!”. Again, if you didn’t understand that, skip this book. If you understood it and found it funny or bizarre… read on. You might just like this crazy romp.

So, the plot. We have a bank robbery, and some investigators sent to… well, investigate. The problem is that the theft was a bunch of virtual property from a virtual bank (by orcs, to boot), and the main investigator actually works for an insurance company and is in way over her head. Enter a befuddled hacker, some local (Edinburgh) police, some Interpol-like MIBs, the Chinese state intelligence agency and various other players. Things escalate from “just” a weird insurance investigation to death threats, assassination attempts and a zombie flash crowd.

So, it’s mostly pure fun, aimed squarely at (online) gamers and others on the semi-bleeding edge of current tech – and it’s probably more than a bit opaque to other readers. Among the more serious bits, it posits an interesting near-future society where everyone is online all the time thanks to pervasive wireless connectivity via (eye)glasses; a society where the very concept of being “lost in a strange town” is alien, since everyone has real-time GIS navigation feeds active (in addition to hundreds of other real-time helpers). Is that where we’re going? And is it a good thing or bad?

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