Science fiction as a genre has expanded dramatically in terms of content in the last half-century, but its continued importance rests on its accomplishing one of two tasks (or a combination of both).
At its best, science fiction speculates productively about possible futures or casts important features of the present into relief. The Delirium Brief, the eighth outing in the Laundry Files novels of the Scots writer Charles Stross, is an excellent example of the latter.
Once described by Corey Doctorow as a candidate for “world’s geekiest artist,” Stross is a subtly polymathic writer. In addition to the Laundry Files (comprising not only eight full volumes but two novellas and one “novelette”), he has also written six volumes in his Merchant Princes series, as well as several other paired and free-standing novels. It says something (exactly what you can decide) that in Neptune’s Brood he has managed to publish the most interesting story ever to center on the work of a forensic accountant.
But it is the Laundry Files that continues to be his true brilliancy. The eponymous agency, a top-secret wing of the British government tasked with tracking and countering occult threats, runs in every way like a standard bureaucratic entity. Stross has a visceral familiarity the lexicon of such organizations, and this constitutes one of the real hooks of the series. Whereas one might think that the institutional culture of an organization combatting threats from beyond the space-time continuum might have a somewhat freewheeling quality to it (much like the CIA did in its early days), the facts on the ground, as Stross convincingly conveys them, are much more prosaic: file the proper forms in triplicate, be on time for meetings, do not under any circumstances exceed the limits on your expense account.
At a slightly deeper level, Stross has managed to keep his series fresh through a series of cleverly effected literary appropriations. Overall, the series could be characterized as a hybrid of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and the Smiley novels of John LeCarré. Stross effectively combines the humor and supernatural storylines of the former with earthy sachlichkeit of the latter. But this characterization overlooks an important subtlety in Stross’s writing. He has clearly read and metabolized a wide range of spy literature, from Ian Fleming to Len Deighton, Peter O’Donnell, Anthony Price, and probably others that I am too dense to recognize.
The world imagined in the Laundry Files has its roots in H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmology, but as viewed through the prism of Hilbert’s mathematics. Our bit of the multiverse is subject to threats from creatures dimly imagined by Lovecraft, but whose connection to our time-space continuum is mathematical, not mystical. Bob Howard, the main character in all but two of the novels, had been doing graduate work on fractals, not knowing that he was “dangerously close to landscaping Wolverhampton with alien nightmares.” Irrespective of the fact that this might actually constitute an improvement on the current state of Wolverhampton, the Laundry couldn’t allow this to happen, and Howard was given one of those offers which one cannot refuse and inducted into the organization.
The Delirium Brief breaks new ground for the series in a couple of respect. In the last two volumes of the Laundry Files, Stross had gone off-model by shifting the main character. In The Annihilation Score (2015), the story is told from the point of view of Dr. Dominique O’Brien, Howard’s wife, another compulsory inductee of the Laundry and a prominent character in all of the earlier books. Stross executed an interesting change of gears, weaving his story around the specificity of the experience of women in bureaucratic institutions. O’Brien notes early in the story that, as a middle-aged woman she is able to use a sort of invisibility power due to the tendency of the male gaze not to register her presence.
In The Nightmare Stacks (2016), the point of view changes again to a previously minor character, Alex Schwartz, whose condition approximates vampirism. Once again, Stross exercised his literary chops. He is fond of riffing on the work of other authors in creative ways, usually involving the claim that they derived their fiction from elements of the real world that they either mischaracterized or which dare not be spoken directly. Here, Stross makes his primary antagonist elves, loosely based on those of Tolkien and rendered in a typically entertaining Strossian manner.
I must admit that these last two, while not unengaging, were not my favorites in the series. This had partly to do with my fear that Bob Howard, who perfectly evinced the dedication and self-deprecating fatalism of the mid-level British civil servant, was going to be fridged. But it is now clear that the last several books (not just the last two) have been setting up the breathtaking events of The Delirium Brief, the excellence of which retrospectively makes the previous two books look considerably better.
The most important feature of The Delirium Brief is its choice of villain. In the course of Howard’s adventures, he’s faced off against SS revivalists, corrupt businessmen, zombies, vampires, even unicorns (which are much less pleasant than myth would have one believe). The Delirium Brief sees the return of the scrumptiously villainous Dr. Raymond Schiller, an American televangelist controlled by an alien entity known as the Sleeper in the Temple.
In his first appearance in The Apocalypse Codex (2012), Schiller was used by Stross as an illustration and critique of the phenomenon of American megachurches. As in the best instances of the genre, Stross took its main features (hypocritical moralism and slimy, paternalistic natalism) to the extreme to illustrate precisely the horrors attaching thereto. In doing so, he made Schiller the most compellingly horrible antagonist of the series, while simultaneously putting forth a razor sharp critique of American political evangelicalism.
The Delirium Brief reproduces this phenomenon, pairing it effectively with a savage critique of neoliberalism, the roots of which can be found on both sides of the Atlantic. Schiller, last seen banished to the dead world on which his demonic master was trapped, reappears. His goal is, as it was, world domination (and consumption). This time he means to cut the legs out from under the opposition by privatizing, and thus destroying, the Laundry. Stross’s previous forays into contemporary political affairs have tended to center on terrorism and the balance struck by the security services between safety and suppression.
Here, Stross sets his sights on the spurious proposition that everything is best accomplished when undertaken on the basis of the profit motive. This ideology is beloved of those in the upper reaches of the income distribution and pedaled as a nostrum for those below. For Bob Howard and his fellow Laundry bureaucrats, operating in secret and facing threats about which the average consumer of government services couldn’t understand even if they were so unlucky as to discover them, the attack of the neoliberals amounts to an invitation to demonic invasion.
It’s often asserted (and not without justice) that art and politics seldom mix without detriment to one or the other. In The Delirium Brief, the mix is seamless and compelling. Stross both carries forward the narrative of the series overall and adds new tweaks and dimensions that keep it fresh and interesting. Perhaps best of all, Stross is the kind of writer with whom one doesn’t have to agree with everything he says to enjoy his work, and in today’s political climate that is worth a great deal.