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The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

The Rhesus Chart by Charles StrossReview: The Rhesus Chart (Laundry Files Book 5) by Charles Stross (Ace, 2014)

Oh mama, sometimes there’s a perfect storm of books all landing at once, a cosmic alignment which compels all of your favourite authors to complete their latest offerings within days of each other. Right now is one such blue moon occasion. Right after discovering that Ben H. Winters had completed his Last Policeman trilogy I discover there’s a new Laundry Files novel available (the one I’m reviewing here), followed immediately by the latest in Richard Kadrey’s insanely fun Sandman Slim series and the concluding chapter of Jeff VanderMeer’s thoroughly unsettling Southern Reach trilogy. Not to mention Robin Sloan sneaking in a prequel to one of my favourite books of last year, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Happy is me. First up is Charlie Stross because, well, he’s just overall awesome and this may be the finest Laundry Files novel to date.

So, to bring you up to speed in case you’re unfamiliar with this particular universe, Bob Howard was just a lonely computing science geek pottering around with algorithms in his flat. Unbeknownst to Bob it turns out that maths just happens to hold the key to accessing other dimensions and inviting their many-toothed and -tentacled denizens for dinner in our neck of the woods. Having been saved from unleashing screaming terror on suburban England he is inducted into The Laundry, a beyond-top-secret government organisation tasked with protecting the realm from threats unknowable, unnameable and indescribable. Think MI5 meets HP Lovecraft.

Many (mis)adventures and near-death incidents later, Bob finds himself discreetly climbing the organisation’s ladder, secretly enlisted as the apprentice to the Eater Of Souls and attempting to maintain a steady relationship with his wife Mo, a one-woman supernatural heavy-weapons unit armed with a cursed violin. For all Bob’s dealings with terrors from beyond the imagination it is the laundry’s stultifying and suffocating bureaucratic culture which causes him most nightmares this time around. The powers that be have decided to encourage motivation and creativity through the time-honoured tradition of whip-cracking, forcing employees to devote and extra 10% of their time to personal projects, selected from a pre-approved list of course. Unfortunately Bob’s colleague Andy succeeds in summoning a rather large and peckish entity into his office, requiring the intervention of his boss Angleton (current Eater Of Souls) and very nearly causing a departmental collapse. This sets Bob off on his own course and before you know it there’s a pack of mathemagically-created vampires roaming London, pawns in a deadly game which will soon have The Laundry at its knees.

The Rhesus Chart, despite being the fifth full-length novel in the series, is an excellent jumping-off point for new readers. It seems Charlie wrote it with accessibility in mind, providing plenty backstory to established characters and concepts without ever coming across as dull or repetitive for seasoned fans. Not to get too spoilery but the plot leads to some dark places and the story ends with events which leave the series open to an almost fresh start and with the ever-approaching Case Nightmare Green as an increasingly palpable destination. If you don’t know what to expect already then you’re going to find nerdy references, horror, humour, fantasy, sci-fi and a healthy dose of well-read snark on display. Stross revels in his contempt for the excesses of the banking institutions which recently caused so much hardship for so many millions as well as his distaste for corporate and bureaucratic culture in general. The barbs he sends that way are always well-aimed, never excessive and invariably having you involuntarily chuckling on the bus as you read.

If you’re already familiar with The Laundry Files then you need to read The Rhesus Chart as soon as possible. The characters and settings are that bit more fleshed-out and you can feel that Charles Stross is much more comfortable in creating the stories. There’s just such a natural feel about the whole thing and everything feels more substantial. What started as a jokey ‘Lovecraft-meets-the-civil-service’ tale has matured into a genuinely accomplished series and this is without a doubt the cream of the crop. If you’re a newb and don’t fancy trawling through the four previous installments (although you should) then you can happily pick up here without feeling you’re missing out. Given the almost Empire Strikes Back feeling to the ending I hope to the Elder Gods that Charlie’s already writing number six.
(An addendum here. I would have copied and pasted some choice quotes from my legally purchased ebook version but I couldn’t because, well, Amazon are a pack of bastards. Evil bastards who hate consumers and content creators in equal measure. I use a Kobo ebook reader but their store is inevitably less well stocked and more pricey than their behemoth of a competitor. So I occasionally resort to Amazon for new titles. However, Amazon only want you to be able to read their releases on their own Kindle devices so they format them and seal them with DRM intended to make them as inaccessible and user-unfriendly as possible. No problem, I can use ebook management tool Calibre to strip the protection and reformat the titles, breaking the law in the process just to access the book I purchased (although don’t ‘own’ because under Amacunt’s T’s & C’s you only license content from them). Normally this proceeds without a hitch but on converting The Rhesus Chart to an epub it decided to interpret every line break as a page break. Every single one. Reading a 2,500 page book was not my plan. So I converted to a mobi instead and while it started fine it also inserted a few characters of random gibberish every page or so and rendered the last half of the book in italics – very distracting and for some reason preventing me from highlighting or annotating. It just so happens that Charlie delivered a couple of small anti-Amazon rants during the course of The Rhesus Chart, helping to make up my mind never to ever use Amazon again. I urge you to do the same. Support authors and support the future of digital reading and publishing by buying direct from the publisher when possible and from alternative outlets when not. End PSA.)

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Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

Neptune's Brood by Charles StrossReview: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2013)

Economics is a deep and complex subject, one to which I can claim almost no knowledge whatsoever. The mechanics of how small lumps of metal and pieces of paper can hold value, alter said value constantly and bring entire species to ruin is baffling. Thanks then to Charles Stross for giving me the impetus to finally apply myself to some self-education on the matter. Inspired heavily by David Graeber’s Debt: The Last 5,000 Years, Stross’s latest sci-fi adventure is a fascinating treatise on the concept of debt slavery and how it might apply to interstellar distances which should, at first glance, render money worthless.

Neptune’s Brood takes place in mankind’s distant future, at a point where galactic colonisation has become the norm and traditional human forms are a rarity termed Fragiles. Our protagonist is one Krina Alizond, one of many instantiations of her brood-mother Sondra, an extremely wealthy and powerful banker. Krina was created to be a historian of accountancy fraud – trust me, it’s more interesting than it sounds – but her life is complicated by the disappearance of a sibling. While exploring distant star systems in search of her missing sib she discovers that she is now part of the search for the Atlantis Carnet, the remnant of one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated. Several parties are suddenly extremely interested in her whereabouts and will stop at nothing to track her down.

So far, so space opera. What sets Neptune’s Brood apart from the rest is the attention paid to the economic underpinnings of the universe it creates. This future is one created entirely by debt. From instantiation one is lumbered with the debt of one’s creation, which must be paid off before becoming a truly free and independent being. Such debts are trifling in comparison with those incurred in colonising new systems though, and every newly-settled world seems to be little more than a thinly-veiled pyramid scheme built for the sole purpose of debt creation and repayment. This eternal debt cycle is fueled by monetary speed, a wonderful concept which requires some explanation.

Fast money is what I used to pay for the tablet on which I’m writing this. It’s easy to use and fully liquid yet is subject to all the vagaries of the market. Saving a 1,000NT note would make no sense were I planning to spend it 1,000 years from now. Medium money takes the form of physical assets – think of today’s obsession with owning property. It’s safer, holds more value, but is less easily accessible. Now, for interstellar trade it makes little sense to use either of those currency forms. The distances and timescales involved in transmission (no warp drives here) require a new standard, slow money, whose value depends on being transmitted and verified several times during the course of a transaction. Slow money is intensely valuable, with the flip side that it is so far from liquid that attempting to exchange it at a bank results in value losses on the order of 90% or more.

Stross takes these two ideas of ubiquitous debt and money speeds and weaves them through a highly entertaining economic whodunnit thriller in space, no mean feat. What comes out the other end can tend towards the confusing for those whose brains aren’t tuned into the world of commerce. Several times I had to re-read a passage a couple of times before its consequences even started to properly sink in. Thankfully the light show surrounding the economics lecture is entertaining enough that this wasn’t discouraging in the slightest. Rather it has sparked an urge to understand this strange universe.

And let’s not forget that Charlie is a master of entertaining yet knowledgeable sci-fi so he never weighs the reader down too much. There are space pirates, communist squid, clone assassins and battles aplenty to keep things moving. The entertainment value is also elevated by some cheeky name-dropping – characters as diverse as Dan Dennett, Jeff Bezos and a certain ocean-going accountancy firm from Monty Python all have cameos.

It’s a book of contradictions and contrast , that’s for sure, and perhaps that’s the ultimate beauty of Neptune’s Brood. Bodyforms are altered from humanoid to cephalopod and back at the drop of a hat, roaming interstellar churches are peopled by insane chefs and the roboticised remains of former clergy, soul chips retain backups of our mental states as well as self-constructed ‘memory palaces’. Yet none of this is remotely as confounding or unsettling as the monetary trickery involved in founding a new colony. While the heavy-going nature of the economics explanations may be off-putting for some, most should be entranced by the ease with which Stross renders the mundane bizarre and vice versa.

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