I'm having an increasingly love hate relationship with this series. The early books in the series had enthralling build ups but very weak endings. StrI'm having an increasingly love hate relationship with this series. The early books in the series had enthralling build ups but very weak endings. Stross seems to have overcome his problems building interesting exciting finales, but the books themselves are getting more and more boring in the lead up.
And I'm really beginning to loath Bob as a narrator. It's getting to the point where I'd be ok with Bob being eaten by some tentacle cosmic horror if I could just get his overly self-aware, self-important, not as funny as he thinks he is, hipster meme dropping self to just shut up. Really, as an exercise in realistic creation of a semi-autistic English IT nerd, I have to admit it's pretty convincing, but Bob is turning into one of those pathetic nerds that irritates even other nerds. Sadly, I'm more and more convinced that the reason Bob's characterization is convincing, is Bob is just Charles himself.
Backing up a bit, my first encounter with Charles was through the 1981 edition of the Fiend Folio, which was unique in being largely the creation of the UK branch of nerds rather than the Wisconsin clan. One problem with this novel is if that if you don't understand what I just said, you won't understand the novel either. On some level as a geek I like that Stross doesn't bother to explain himself to the reader, but if he's going to do that he should go full bore and stop putting full summaries of the setting and recaps of past events every 20 pages. But even more so, I'd just rather he stop trying to prove he's a real geek and just get on with the story telling. Seriously, at this point adding oblique references to Numenera and the hundreds of other geek bits of the moment is doing nothing to make this a better story. It's all wink, wink, nudge, nudge and let's see how many geek bonus XP we can earn if we reference some obscure element of the first episode of the original Star Trek, etc.
But any way, in Fiend Folio Charles came up with the idea of the Slaad. Now the truth is, that the Slaad were a mix of genius and epic fail. They were genius enough to survive as beloved reoccurring content for a particular sort of geek, and epic fail enough that everyone that has looked at them seriously has said to themselves, "This is (almost) totally wrong." It's not that they weren't cool enough, it's just that back in those days if something was supposed to be an embodiment of Chaos, no one really thought very hard about what that meant and the resulting creatures aren't really actually very good at embodying chaos as a concept. Instead, they are a couple of good ideas married to a couple of bad ideas that basically makes them a kind of demon-lite. Mechanically, they served a very important role in D&D in that they were one of the few monsters that had actually been written to realistically provide a challenge to high level PCs. Conceptually they may have been light weight demons, but mechanically they were foes++. As a game token, they worked really well. As reification of some idea to toy with in your intellectual space, they just didn't - solid crunchy play things on one level and half-baked never refined ideas on the other.
That's largely what the Laundry stores have always been, except that at least back in the day - as he was with the Slaad - Stross was a content provider. In these latest works, Stross seems less like a content provider and more like a content aggregator that is half Google web crawler and half 'Will it Blend?'. Every paragraph dumps 50 meme references so that I really think it would be possible to reconstruct Stross's browser history in detail by pulling apart the novel, right down to which essays on The Guardian he read, which reddit threads he browsed, and on which days he visited DailyKos or DU to figure out what his colleagues across the pond were reading.
The result of this is that Bob is the only believable character in the series, and only because Bob is Charles. When Charles tries to give a voice to any other character in the series, it just completely falls flat. Now, as a DM I've encountered this sort of problem before. In my experience, 80% of RPers are only able to RP themselves. But in a session of D&D or WEG Star Wars or Delta Green, it really doesn't matter if the player can only be themselves, because its kind of cool to get answers to the question, "What would my friend do if he found himself in a burning building being overrun by 5th dimensional star vampires?" or "If my friend was secret agent, how would he handle a plot by occult shape changers to take over the government?" But it's a bit annoying in a novel, particularly a novel with such an increasingly one dimensional Marty Stu as Bob is becoming.
A bit of a spoiler here, but on page 1 of the book I guessed that Stross was going to kill off Mo. I'd seen it coming for a couple of books now. Mo is just getting in the way of Bob's increasingly sexy geek mojo. For the last three or four books, Bob would have been getting it on with a whole host of sexy eager girl super spies, if it wasn't for that whiny weepy ball and chain he has to go back to and which is a continual drag on his libido and sense of cool. It's clearly what Charles wanted to do, even as he had his alter self scrupulously adhering faithfully to his marriage vows.
Although everything in the story went pretty much exactly how I expected in every plot point, I guessed wrong about Mo', and I haven't decided for myself whether I think my guessing wrong is the best thing about the story because it means Howard/Stross has chosen the best angels of his nature, or whether I find it lazy cowardice as an author because Howard/Stross can now keep having his cake and eating it to.
Lastly, the story is no longer in the least bit scary. Stross still has never once excelled in terms of fear that moment Howard is racing across an alien landscape in order to close a door before something too big to imagine eats his whole universe way back in the first book. I hesitate to even classify this thin soup of totally scareless scenes as horror, except that by convention stories about vampires are in the horror category and Stross keeps name dropping to increasingly little point the Lovecraftian mythos. But when you are saving the Earth by sticking a sticker on it, it's long left horror and entered the world of camp. ...more
The world building is pretty terrible. I never got the sense that the City was in the slightest a work of engineering aThis book barely hit two stars.
The world building is pretty terrible. I never got the sense that the City was in the slightest a work of engineering and not a work of literature with particular constraints designed to serve the story. Even if you wanted a setting that served the same literary purpose, a better and more believable one could have been contrived with a bit of thought. If you are going to write science fiction, you have to do the world building. The fact that you are writing juvenile fiction is no excuse. Good juvenile fiction doesn't mean its unappealing to adults; it merely means its also appealing to and suited to younger readers. If an adult can't enjoy it, it's a waste of time for a child as well.
This book is also proof that a work of fiction can get too didactic even for me, even where I largely agree with the talking points. Again, that this is juvenile fiction is no excuse. Good writing is good writing regardless of who it is pitched to.
But that said, I would have overlooked all of that and even the trite shallow characterization if the author had more merit as a writer. There are just some really basic amateurish mistakes here that really ruin the work. First, the writer uses the first page of the text not to provide a hook, but to provide spoilers. Secondly, the writer doesn't start the fiction at the point where the action actually begins, but rambles on for a while waiting for the story to actually happen. I can't help but feel that this was written to a template provided by 'The Giver' without understanding why that book, which was nearly as infuriating but for different reasons, had the structure it did. At least 'The Giver' actually managed to begin where the conflict begins and tell the story of how the protagonist met the challenge of the conflict. This begins with an arbitrary life experience and largely has the protagonist team idle through most of the story, unable or unwilling to make meaningful decisions. Much of the reason we read a story is to root for a protagonists success, and that requires that the reader sympathize for the situation that the protagonist is in. It doesn't require that the protagonist actually go from victory to victory, but it does require that at least we see the protagonist honestly struggling and trying in the face of the conflict. Through almost all of the story, the protagonists of City of Ember are idle, childish, and lackadaisical in the face of disaster. While that might well be true to life, it raises the question of why the author of this story would choose to tell the story only from their perspective alone when for much of the story, the prospective of the chosen protagonists is simply quite dull.
This is one of the longest short stories I've ever plowed through. The pacing was just so incredibly slow and there was nothing - no depth of character, no beautiful prose, no intriguing setting - to make up for it and excuse our loitering through the story.