Jul 11, 12
Read in July, 2012
Charlie Stross was one of my favorite science fiction authors a while back - Iron Sunrise, the first few books in the Laundry Files universe, and more.
I'm not sure if his style is changing or if my preferences are, but recently I've been less and less able to tolerate his writing. It strikes me as smug, self-righteous, and very VERY pleased with itself. The less clever he's actually being, the more self-regard his fiction seems to exude.
I'd pre-ordered this book months ago, and it arrived yesterday on release date.
I forced myself to read to page 100 before giving up on the novel and throwing it on the "donate to library" pile.
I know from his blog that Stross is active in attendance at science fiction conventions, and I've got a theory that the first habit that bugs me (more on this in a moment) comes from that. He seems to think that in-jokes and witt-less witicisms are the soul of cleverness. This is now the second - third? - novel in which his characters use the oh-so au-courant [for 2009] phrase "Jesus Phone" to refer to iPhones. He re-uses and re-uses and re-uses science-fiction nerdom catch phrases [ example dialogue: "any sufficiently advanced lingerie is indistiguishable from a weapon" ] that are intended to be funny, but fall utterly flat. In a single word, the nerd-to-nerd dialogue is embarrassing, and it's embarrassing on two different levels: if I worked with a self-described nerd who thought he was being clever issuing the lines that Stross' characters deploy with regularity, I'd cringe for his or her sake. ...and given that this is not actual dialogue, but written fictional dialogue that rings so false and so flat, I cringe for Stross' sake.
The final thing that made me realize that this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly [ see the Dorothy Parker quote for the rest of that thought ] is the self-righteous smug condemnation he, through his characters, hands out to all of the mouth-breathing evil Jesus freaks from the snake handling continent of North America.
Stross' unconstrained hostility to Christianity is normally present in his blog, but it usually doesn't impact his fiction ... but in this book it's hard to go a page without being hit over the head with Stross' opinions being mouthpieced through either the characters or the plot. The villain is a cartoonish two dimensional televangelist (a totally up-to-the-minute target of hate...if this was 1982 and the 700 Club was on the air) of a TV megachurch. The preacher is a horrible man, engaging in gluttony and lust towards his daughter. Because he is a sexual pervert [ I think, having read only to page 100 ] he's castrated himself...but none-the-less he forces his daughter to mortify his flesh, as holy punishment, which involves something unspecified off in the direction of painful oral sex.
All of Stross' sympathetic characters roll their eyes in all the right places, and violently agree with each other on how evil and stupid those who don't share their sophisticated opinions are. At one point a teacher notes approvingly the de-Christianization of England (in that there are Hindus, Muslims, etc. in her class) but mention her big problem with the religious: fanatic parents - not Muslims, mind you, but Christians - take their children out of religion class. There can be no explanation for this other than the one presented - the small minded Christian parents are afraid that their children learn FACTS.
It is during this same coversation that one of the good left-wing anti-Christian characters that we are meant to identify with "sips his wine thoughtfully" in the between explaining that Christians are fanatics and, after the sip, explaining that Christians are fanatics.
Moving off of the utterly arrogant and snide tone to a new topic of critique: one of Stross' pitfalls as a writer is that he often throws a barrage of word-salad at the reader in - I believe - an attempt to come off as more knowledgeable than I suspect he actually is. In some of his science fiction the phrase "time-like curves" appears far more often than is defensible, and the context fails to provide any example that Stross actually knows what he's talking about. In this, his horror fiction, it's a barrage of theological terms. "Dispensationalism" gets used as if it's just a synonym for "fundamentalist", "prosperity theology" gets used in a similar way. The "quiverful" movement of some Christian religions teaching that large families are good is denounced as a plot because the people who adopt such opinions are seeking to either indoctrinate their children or use them for unwholesome purposes.
Despite the fact that most of the oxes that Stross is goring are not my own, I finally got SO annoyed at how he stacked the deck so strongly against his ideological enemies, so that every character sympathetic to his own point of view is wise, patient, sophisticated and urbane, and every character with the other opinions is a snake-handling con-man, I couldn't even stay with the book up to the point where - I presume - the fairly entertaining Chtulian plot begins.
It's a shame - Stross used to be a good writer.
Like Heinlein in his late period, though, writing good fiction and entertaining the reader now takes a backseat to the author's own tired rants.