The Labyrinth Index, Charles Stross (Tor 978-1250196088, 368pp, $27.99, hc) October 2018.
Charles Stross’s Laundry Files books have been getting darker with every new entry, and the ninth, The Labyrinth Index, may be the darkest yet – which is saying something, given that the whole series combines some of the more unsettling aspects of the espionage and horror traditions. While I’m unpacking genre/influence components, let me add the gadget-wise terminological precision of a technothriller married to profound existential terror and astringent, wisecracking satire (verging on the bitter): Tom Clancy (though with better prose) kibitzes on a three-handed bridge game with H.P. Lovecraft, John Le Carré (or Alan Furst or Philip Kerr), and Dorothy Parker (or Carl Hiaasen).
This volume follows on the events of last year’s The Delirium Brief, in which the government of the UK barely avoids a really hostile and squicky takeover by devotees of an Elder God, but it also has roots in the superhero plague of The Annihilation Score (2015), one of whose powered-up minor characters now turns out to be yet another Elder God, “the avatar – the humanoid sock-puppet – of an ancient and undying intelligence who regards mere humanity much as we might regard a hive of bees,” but who nevertheless “needs worshippers…. He’s… a narcissist that’s adopted our species as His pet project.” That entity, N’yar Lat-Hotep, has managed to make itself Prime Minister, and, after having come to power by “constitutionally sound means,” is functionally an absolute monarch and in the process of getting various inconvenient laws officially changed to suit its preferred style of governance, which includes human sacrifice and plans for a multistory shrine of skulls in Marble Arch.
The Prime Minister, however, is by no means the worst kind of eldritch takeover artist operating on Earth. Across the Atlantic, everyone in the nation has forgotten that the US has a President. Behind that forgetting is a power that is a bigger threat to humankind than a merely bloodthirsty extradimensional beekeeper. The PM orders Laundry personnel to assemble a team to uncover this possible rival and to undo whatever is being done in America.
As Stross has pointed out in one of his website’s Crib Sheet entries, this series no longer belongs to original protagonist Bob Howard (now offstage and promoted, if that is the right term, to the status of Eater of Souls) or even his supernatural-assassin wife Maureen. We are guided through this book’s plot-maze by first-person narrator Mhari Murphy, a PHANG (vampire) operative from The Annihilation Score, but, as has become usual in Laundry novels, other viewpoint characters fill out the story line. Once we get to the States, we follow the divided-up sections of the Laundry team on their assigned tasks; the sleep-deprived Secret Service detail moving the President from safe house to safe house; and the cat-and-mouse pursuit mounted by the demon-compromised Operational Phenomenology Agency, the American Laundry-equivalent agency with the apt and unsettling nickname of “the Nazgûl.” Since this is, among other things, a covert-ops caper whose manner of resolution should be surprising to the reader as well as the Opposition, the telling requires considerable back-and-forthing between present and past and among various subsets of the cast.
The plot is rich in incidents ranging from the comic-grotesque to the stuff of nightmare. An autism-spectrum elvish blood-sorceress gets a personality/memory/appearance overlay (to allow her to function socially with the Laundry team) stolen from a family-connected political officer. The result is a mashup of an uptalking Sloane Ranger and the scary, sociopathic creature she actually is. (“Walking death Barbie!”) A visit to the Mouthpiece of the being running the subverted OPA – “a great one who cannot (yet) fit within the walls of this universe” – is an extended horror of impalement, infestation, and agony. The scenes of violence that punctuate and complete the action are visceral and filled with flying blood and ichor and bodies exploding in flames and clouds of greasy smoke.
It makes for a twisty read, full of asides, flashbacks, antecedent-action reminders, and a certain amount of misdirection and concealment. But then, as the title suggests, twisty is what this story is about. It is even more about a bleak, no-good-options world in which even the good guys are morally compromised and implicated in evil – though preferably lesser evils. Every superhuman or supernatural power or action has a cost – feeding a vampire requires that someone die very unpleasantly, and superpowers lead to an equally nasty early demise for the bearers – and moral compasses just spin around uselessly in such an environment. It strikes me as significant that one of the causes of all the magical chaos plaguing the world comes down to thinking too much, too efficiently, about the wrong kinds of things. It doesn’t require evil intent to call up demons and monsters, or an invitation to wind up with a vampire on the wrong side of your threshold.
Nor is that world one of mere fantasy. This is a book desperately engaged in the operations of the political-economic-cultural environment that contains us all. Stross has written about how Brexit required an extensive rewrite of the first draft of The Delirium Brief (“I tried to satirize British politics, and British politics is beyond satire”), and I wonder how much of later news cycles wormed their way into this book. Nor need that leakage be limited to UK matters. The PM’s strange behavior has echoes of current whispers about our own chief executive. Mhari observes that an informal meeting is
a platform for the PM, who is mercurial at best, to rant at us about his personal hobby horses. (Which are many and alarming, and he tends to switch between them in mid-sentence.) It’s as exhausting as dealing with an early-stage dementia sufferer – one with a trillion-pound budget and nuclear weapons release authority.
On this particular occasion, the rant starts with “deal[ing] with the Jews” and morphs into an order for a “final solution” for all monotheistic faiths – “the pernicious virus of the wrong kind of monotheism.” This would seem not to be our timestream, though, at least if I am correct about the identity of the US Ambassador who suffered an unspecified but presumably grisly fate when he “made the mistake of personally asking for a tax break for his golf course in Ayrshire.”
I suspect that both the grotesque comedy and the direness of this book signal an increase in the series’ engagement with the state of the world outside its pages – desperate laughter edging into despair. In fact, I have long seen Stross’s work as anything but mere entertainments or thrill-rides – the once-abandoned early novel Scratch Monkey (2011) shows the nightmare underside of his relentlessly analytical imagination. Nobody comes through The Labyrinth Index unscathed – well, nobody mortal, anyway. The monsters abide, even when their immediate agendas are frustrated.
Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.
This review and more like it in the December 2018 issue of Locus.
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