The Atrocity Archives

by Charles Stross

Other authorsKen MacLeod (Introduction), Marty Halpern (Editor), Lynne Condellone (Cover designer), Steve Montiglio (Cover artist)
Hardcover, 2004



Call number

PR6119 .T79


Golden Gryphon Press (Urbana, Ill., 2004). 1st edition, 1st printing. 295 pages. $24.95.


The father of modern computer science, Alan Turning paves the way for esoteric mathematical computations that, when used by Nazi Germany's Ahnenerbe-SS to perform a summoning, results in an unexpected evil brought to Earth through a portal to an alternate universe.

User reviews

LibraryThing member paradoxosalpha
This volume contains a brief novel (Stross's first to be published) and its longish short story sequel. Of the two, I preferred the first with its more leisurely pacing. Also, there was a major plot-twist in the short story that I was able to spot about thirty pages in advance. The meat of both is a very artful hybrid of exo-horror and spy-thriller, with a sardonic take on postmodern bureaucracy and a generous helping of hacker culture. The characters are well-drawn and their context is a UK occult intelligence organization called the Laundry. I found myself often resorting to the appendix which decoded the alphabet soup of (mostly non-fictional) abbreviations, acronyms, and organizations; and I laughed out loud when I had to look up TLA and find it explicated as "Three Letter Acronym." Other features I appreciated: misfiring demonic evocations, inside references to weird literature, a romantic dinner in Amsterdam, and cow jokes.

As it turns out, the book is far from unique, not even counting Stross' own sequels. In his afterword, he points to Tim Powers's Declare and the Crypt of Cthulhu gaming supplement Delta Green as evidence that the early 21st century was a steam engine time for this sort of story. (The Torchwood television series was late to the party, and thus quite possibly inspired by Stross's own work--a thought that would probably be unwelcome to him, since he has repeatedly expressed in his blog his contempt for recent SF television generally, and Russell T. Davies' work in particular.)

There's no need to discuss Stross's sources or literary influences here, because he does so himself with verve and candor in the aforementioned afterword. He also shares some interesting thoughts about the construction of spies and hackers as fictional protagonists. At all events, this book was a lot of fun, and I expect to read more of Stross's stories about the Laundry.
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LibraryThing member Armand_Inezian
The quicky version!

1. I liked it.
2. It's really a novella + 1 short story.
3. It pays smart homage to HP Lovecraft and updates the Cthulhu mythos in a creative way.
4. It gets very technical in parts.
5. Charles Stross is a smart, funny, imaginative writer who does his fan-base a great service.
6. Some plot elements (particularly in the area of file conflicts/ battles) could be much stronger.

Stross does a great job of piecing together different mythologies and ideas in fresh and original ways, and I think maybe that's why people like him so much: because he inspires new ideas and sets off bright, new colors in my head . Yet- simultaneously- he does a fabulous job of paying homage to H.P. Lovecraft, giving a modern edge to those nightmarish, tentacle, brain-sucking possibilities that Lovecraft crafted in the 1920'sand 30's.

The long and loving version.

I first became aware of The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross about three years ago, when the novel was recommended by a friend who described it to me as "Cthulhu meets "The Office"". I can confirm the Cthulhu part, but I have never actually seen "The Office", so I'll to take my friend's word for that one .
Anyway, The Atrocity Archives gradually made its way through my reading list (it took three years!) Another friend gave it to me as a Christmas present finally finished reading it now.

I have a number of things to address, so I'm going to break this review into sections:

1. It's really a novella + 1 short story.

To begin with, this isn't really a novel. It's actually two linked stories. The first part of The Atrocity Archives is a novella concerning the appearance of an alternate, parallel universe that is threatening to consume our own. This takes up about two thirds of the book. The final third is actually short story that contains some of the same characters, but has its own distinct story arc (about a technology-based Medusa-gaze) . This is neither good nor bad, but is kind of interesting because if you come to expecting one complete story, you're not going to get it.

2. It proves Michael Chabon's theory of fan fiction.

Michael Chabon's book of essays, "Maps and Legends" is a touchstone for me. Why am I mentioning it here? Because I often refer to it when I review works of fantasy and science fiction. One interesting thing that Michael Chabon notes is that we live in the "era of fan fiction". And- in many ways- The Atrocity Archives proves his case. You see, the novel is set in a universe where HP Lovecraft's monsters exist. In fact, you could consider it an extension of the Cthulhu mythos, with a high tech/computer upgrade. That being said, Stross does make it his own, so please don't be turned off when I use term fan fiction. It is only fan fiction in the broadest sense, in the same way that Anne Rice's vampire books are fan fiction of Dracula.

3. There is a lot of smart-person stuff going on, to the point it got a little distracting.

One quibble I have with this book is that there is a lot of technical detail. I mean a lot: references to physics, mathematics, technology, mythology, the structure of British government, not to mention computer hardware galore. I felt like- to really understand what was going on, I mean to get the clearest possible picture- I would need to read this book sitting by my computer and checking into Wikipedia every so often to figure out what exactly Stross means when he uses the term "Mandelbrot Set" or "Artisan's Rifles" or "quantum tunneling effect".

Actually, having phone access to a physics PhD might've helped too. Actually, I do have phone access to a guy with a PhD in physics, but I don't think he'd appreciate me calling him every 20 minutes to discuss a novel.

You can still understand story without knowing all the technical details, but here and there it does get irksome. The effect is kind of like going to a party and running into somebody who's very, very smart and very, very witty, and having a rollicking, involved conversation with them, but after the whole things done- on your way home- you scratch your head and admit to yourself, "I didn't understand some of the things that guy said."

4. The writing is engaging, imaginative and strong. And he writes to his fans.

Stross has earned multiple writing awards, and it shows. His writing is strong and intelligent, and it works well, caring seamlessly from page to page. Stross does a great job of piecing together different mythologies and ideas in fresh and original ways, and I think maybe that's why people like him so much: because he inspires new ideas and sets off bright, new colors in my head . Yet- simultaneously- he does a fabulous job of paying homage to H.P. Lovecraft, giving a modern edge to those nightmarish, tentacle, brain-sucking possibilities that Lovecraft crafted in the 1920'sand 30's.

You also have to give Stross points for sticking to his target audience. I feel like he wrote these books for the IT/ fanboy/ geek crowd, which is a bit like building cars for racers. It's a specialty area. It's not for everybody, and not everyone will appreciate it, but those who do appreciate it will become hard-core fans. It takes a certain amount of bravery to write to a certain group of people, because it means excluding others. You have to admire the Stross did not cut corners or dumb-down his writing (or plot elements) to find a wider following.

Now, having said all that, I didn't entirely engage with the novel.

5. One weak point (for me)- quickly dissipating tension/ easily resolved conflicts-

One thing that I did not like about The Atrocity Archives is that the conflicts were resolved a bit too quickly and smoothly. When it comes to fantasy thrillers, the books that stand out to me like champions are the ones in which the hero has everything on the line, and in which the protagonist has to struggle mightily to save his (or her) proverbial bacon.

In the case of Bob Howard, our IT-necromancer hero, however, both tales of the Atrocity Archives begin with THE PROMISE of that type of high-stakes, "everything-on-the-line" conflict, but the actual climaxes (the final battles) are often resolved both a bit too neatly and (more infuriatingly) off-the-page. In fact, Bob isn't usually there when it happens. Stross has a tendency of "cutting away" during fight sequences. The classic example (and I'm not giving much away, so this is a mini-spoiler) happens when Bob attempts to rescue a woman from the clutches of an evil cult. As he closes in on the cult headquarters in an effort to save her, he is knocked unconscious. The chapter ends there. The next time we see Bob, he's recovering from a head injury. We then learn that he was knocked out by his American counterparts who then moved in to save the woman. Where was Bob during this dramatic scene? Out cold, so we- the readers- missed the conflict.
When I write it that way, it seems funny, but when it happens over and over again- for me anyway- that pull some of the drama and tension out of the plot. It does happen throughout the book. When bad guys are killed, when bombs are diffused, Bob is the other room or stuck in a closet somewhere, or completely unaware of the situation.

I do wonder if Stross does this intentionally, because it's more realistic? I mean, in the real world, it's more likely that complicated events would get resolved in messy ways, and it's highly unlikely that any one person could resolve multiple conflicts. On the other hand, this is fiction, and I don't think it's too far of a stretch to expect our protagonist to be there and participating in the proverbial excrement hits the fan.

6. Stross is funny in a dry, ironic way.

I'm sure there were some jokes I went right over my head, but the comedy works really well especially when contrasted with the stark horrors that Bob faces. And he has a gift for describing then lousiness of office politics.


If this novel were a drink, it would be a lousy-tasting cup of coffee loaded with nanotech particles that would allow you to interface with the many-faceted ones that dwell at the bottom of the Mandelbrot Set. {And- no- I don't really understand what the Mandelbrot Set is}

If this book were an animal, it would be a clever monkey (who wears cargo pants that are loaded with tech gear). The monkey is employed in the IT department of a major corporation and he uses his long arms and amazing climbing ability to work his way between the walls and to fix the ever changing landscape of wires and circuit boards and fight against the rising tide of ghostly machine-chaos (think Super Mario but with wiring instead of plumbing). Said monkey would wear hipster shades.
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LibraryThing member sockatume
A procedural spy thriller set in a world where Lovecraft monsters and black magic rival nuclear weapons and secret intelligence, and sorcery is a branch of applied mathematics. This novel overlaps with so many of my favourite topics that I had as much fun recognising the ideas being raised and collating concepts as going on the actual adventure. I look forward to visiting the rest of this series.… (more)
LibraryThing member elmyra
I'm beginning to run out of credibility when I say I don't do horror. ;-)

The horror in The Atrocity Archives is in places horrific and in places farcical. Not a lot frightens me about the concept of tentacle monsters coming to eat my brains when the stars are right, but some of the descriptions of what human beings will do for that kind of power are truly sickening. Other aspects of the book are extremely funny. Charlie Stross understand the nature of the bureaucrat as well as that of the geek and uses that understanding to great effect. This is a great mash-up of horror, spy novel and science fiction of the geekiest variety, and it is a remarkably enjoyable read.

The book contains the (short) novel The Atrocity Archives and the (I guess) novella (or possibly novelette) The Concrete Jungle.

I'm looking forward to reading the sequel(s).
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
I have had this on my bookshelf for what seems like forever, & after spending this month reading a ton of Chaosium publications, I decided I'd read this one as well. As happens a lot with me, after I finished it I wondered what else on my shelf I've been missing!

What an awesome book! I just ordered the Jennifer Morgue to continue the adventures of Bob Howard & the Laundry; then I'll be bummed because I'm sure it will be a while until the next one. Who should read this? Anyone who likes Lovecraft, spy novels, and enjoys a bit of dark humor (especially at the expense of bureaucracy in government) will truly love this book. I couldn't put it down once I started it.

A synopsis of this book could not do it justice, and besides, there are so many out there on the internet if you go look; so I will just say that there's just enough truth here to make you cringe; indeed, the horror aspect of this book (imho) comes from the realities that are interspersed with the fantastical.

I LOVED this book, and can highly recommend it. I can't help it...I'm a sucker for this kind of stuff.

Do NOT miss the last section in this book, by any means.
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LibraryThing member ErasmusRob
A marvelous conglomeration of computer geekery, horror, and occult geekery. The author makes jokes that I just barely catch, and I'm confident he has others that I missed, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The premise is that there are indeed Lovecraftian things out there, and we are indeed protected by secret government organizations (in this case, a UK one called the "Laundry"), but the process is a very sophisticated combination of the old (a drop of blood) and the new (lasers define the pentagram capture space in which some interdimensional nasty may materialize). Often people are recruited by the Laundry because they accidentally stumble on some mathematical problem that could lead to Something Awful stopping by to eat a city or two (or worse--read the story), which should give you a hint of how things work in this book.

I was very sad when this ended, because I was enjoying it too much to want to stop. Fortunately, there is a sequel (or sequels) and I'm going to have to do some hunting at the library.
If you're a mathematician, a science fiction fan, an occultist (Gods, I hate that word!) or a fan of horror fiction, you should enjoy this.

The style is not unlike Neal Stephenson's in "Zodiac," if that's any help.
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LibraryThing member snarkhunt
Funny enjoyable hard SF. You've got the office politics, the hacker culture and a nice Stephenson vibe of crazy details.
LibraryThing member lewispike
As you can see from the tags this is a hard to categorise book.

Basically it relies on a couple of premises: maths (and even more so computers) can make connections to demon dimensions and do magic things, and there's a civil service secret group dedicated to protecting us from the worst of it.

There are a lot of nuances that this summary misses though: they're in the best gamekeeper is a former poacher school of thought. Charles Stross has clearly worked in a large bureaucracy, quite possibly the civil service, and he dissects and satirises it from that point of view with unerring, wicked accuracy (at least if you're a brit). There's a fair bit of geek heavy humour in there too.

My only regret: I suspect he hasn't done any more in this style. A great shame.
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LibraryThing member blueslibrarian
This collects two early novellas from Stross, "The Atrocity Archive" which recounts the adventures of Bob Howard, computer genius and reluctant spy for The Laundry, a super-secret British agency charged with protecting this universe from incursions from the outer realms. In an ingeniously pulpy plot involving escaped Nazis, modern-day terrorists, and portals into other universes, Howard must keep our universe safe and at the same time save his love interest, Mo, from the clutches of danger. In the second novella, "The Concrete Jungle", secret agent Bob is on the trail of exploding cows (!) that have been attacked with a pan-dimensional weapon. Bureaucratic intrigue and satire are the order of the day here. This is a modern day updating of the pulp adventure stories of the 30's with a serious infusion of computer geek cheekiness. Fans of techno-thrillers with a patience for some lingo-slinging will find a lot to enjoy here.… (more)
LibraryThing member ropie
It's hard to pinpoint what exactly makes this such a great book and having finished it and thought about it for some while I can say only the following: The bottom line is that Charles Stross knows exactly how to write a great story. On the surface his writing is maybe too fast-paced and a little juvenile but taken as a whole it hangs together so well. The characters are a tad stereotyped but confidently portrayed and immediately likeable. The plot is deeply fascinating and continuously surprises with its strangeness. Stross has a penchant for acronyms and the story really is littered with them but thankfully there is a glossary that lists most of them.

I find it hard to say a bad thing about The Atrocity Archives. Everything balances but tips you up when necessary. There are elements of Stanislaw Lem, Iain M Banks and Len Deighton (as Stross explains in his afterword to the story) here. Also, there is the thick, dark presence of certain horror authors I cannot pretend to know much about.

I almost passed this book up as a minor work of a writer best-known for space operas (which are not my cup of tea generally). I'm extremely glad I decided to read it.
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LibraryThing member penwing
When reading this book, my face kept breaking out into a big grin. launching from the Church-Turing Theory to summoning Lovecraftian horrors in the space of a single page is a perfect prompt for a geekgasm 8-). Going to have to seek out The Jennifer Morgue now
LibraryThing member isadrone
A tech-support geek in a (literally) occult government agency begins doing field work. Stross has here a very amusing idea with fantastic elaborations and, dare I say, excellent world-building. Alas, the characterizations and plotting don't hold up nearly as well. Hugo-winning novella "The Concrete Jungle", here tagged on the end of "The Atrocity Archives" proper, thus works quite a bit better for being so much shorter. An amusing read, but not a keeper unless you're collecting the whole of Stross.… (more)
LibraryThing member wvlibrarydude
Take computer geek that is now fighting the horrors of Cthulhu from within a giant British government bureaucracy. Did I mention Nazis? Oh yeah. Laugh out loud funny with great action and humor. Just roll with it.
LibraryThing member maledei
good read, but somehow the picture-link goes to the wrong book.
LibraryThing member Acrinoe
Dilbert meets Cthulu while channeling Bond
LibraryThing member AlanPoulter
Part one of three (in Spectrum SF 7: November 2001): Bob Howard works as a sysadmin at the 'Laundry', which is accessible via a secret door in a stall in the gents at Euston Square tube station in London. The secret 'Laundry' does vital work: its operatives, all sworn to secrecy under the (unpublished) Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act (1916) protect the public against evil, powerful beings from other universes. Alan Turing's last (unpublished) theorem opened up access to other universes via 'thaumaturgic computing', necessitating the founding of the Laundry during the Second World War, to foil a Nazi threat to use these beings against the Allies. Bob is sent to the US by his enigmatic boss Angleton to bring home a British PhD researcher, Mo, whose topic is edging into Laundry territory. He manages to save her from unwilling participation in a summoning by three Arabs, one of whom seems to be possessed. A delightful combination of realism (in the depiction of technology use, office politics and government bureaucracy) and dark fantasy, as funny as it is scary.

Part two of three (in Spectrum SF 9: May 2002): Perhaps the most audacious piece of science fiction/fantasy ever, on one hand re-interpreting the Nazi concentration camps as the 'power source' for an otherworldly superweapon, documented in the Atrocity Archives, part of a hidden war museum in Amsterdam, and on the other seeing Bob become part of a special SAS squad (carrying a nuclear device as a fail safe) attacking a Nazi base on a cold, dead alien world, whose moon has been etched with the face of Hitler.

Part three of three (Spectrum SF 9: November 2002): The narrative flips again, this time from Nazis to something far more evil, as Bob realises what the real villain is. Unfortunately someone has set the the nuclear device on a countdown, which is exactly what not to do in a universe which is fast approaching its heat death.
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LibraryThing member mmyoung
If one could characterize a vision modern day life undergirded by Lovecraftian nightmares as a romp, then this is a romp. Though there were section were I felt that Stross was consciously (or perhaps self-consciously) straining in his writing to achieve particular effects/impressions I found the book to be a compelling read -- in other words I ended up losing sleep as I found myself impelled to finish the book before calling it a night.… (more)
LibraryThing member FicusFan
I read this book for a RL book group. I already had it on hand, but had not read it until it was selected by the group. It is the start of The Laundry series.

It is a mix of science fiction/fantasy and thriller/mystery with a dash of cynical humor and romance thrown in. I have read other books by Charles Stross and enjoyed them. This one, not so much.

The premise is that the real world and the horror world both exist. The use of technology and magic in combination, open portals for nasty beasties and some of their world to invade ours. There is a secret service in the UK called The Laundry and its their job to prevent and fight incursions.

They prevent the problems by monitoring those who work in science and computers to keep them from innocently (or not) enacting or creating a dangerous formula that will open the other worlds. In fact many of the employees of The Laundry are those who have been co-opted into employment because they are too creative and dangerous to leave on their own.

The POV character, Bob Howard was recruited that way. He is required to work in the bureaucracy where they have extreme costing, time keeping, and rules and superiors who will hang you for a lost paper clip.

Bob also has other assignments were he is playing low-rent James Bond trying to save the world. He breaks in places and erases dangerous computer files, and he follows people to see what they are doing and who they are meeting.

He has to juggle the field work and the office work, and try to keep his sanity. He has strange room mates and an odd on-again, off-again girlfriend, all part of The Laundry. During his field work, which he screws up, he meets a woman and falls for her.

The story is of his juggling the different Laundry groups, his life and screw ups, and trying to save the world.

The problem is he tries too hard. He has to be funny all the time, which is tiresome, and he has to explain every little piece of technology, and magic. Its non-stop techno babble. Just tiresome and boring. There are also cutesy puns and pop culture references.

The horror they end up fighting is rather a let down, and there is very little that is interesting in the story. The book started life as a short story and has just been stretched. There is also an odd mini-story tacked onto the end.

At the end of the book is a glossary of all the acronyms he uses, and it should have been at the front. Oddly the book is supposed to also be 'horror', but Stross steps on it in an attempt to ramp it up.

I couldn't wait for it to be over, and though I have book 2, and may eventually read it, I won't go any further.
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LibraryThing member jlparent
Cthulhu mythos mixed with espionage/adventure, the day to day with the occult, humor and lots of "geek speak" - it was enjoyable and different.
LibraryThing member gimble
Secret agent Bob is on the case, but it's not your normal spy mission. No, the secret service Bob works for is called the Laundry and they deal with your atypical bad guys, the one that suck your brains out and make you a zombie.
The two stories contained in this book are a great read especially for us tech heads who like to know there are people out in the real world (or not so) who deal with the same problems you do. As said before this is a fantastic book and well worth the time it take to inhale it.… (more)
LibraryThing member CKmtl
A funny and engrossing tongue-in-cheek thriller, bound to be of interest to Lovecraft fans. Stross' afterword about the influences behind his Laundry series was an added bonus.
LibraryThing member Kellswitch
I'm not really sure what to make of this book. It's a combination of a thriller, horror novel and science fiction and while it was enjoyable it tries to be so many different things at once that I felt it fell a little short on all of them.

There was to much techno babble, acronyms, abbreviations and government agencies constantly being dropped into the story, sometimes entire paragraphs worth, that it made it hard to really get sucked into what was happening. I was constantly having to stop and try and figure out what he was saying or flip to the back page to find out what a particular acronym meant that it pretty much took out any sense of horror, dread or even excitement in what was happening until the very end when he eased up on all of that (somewhat) and just seemed to focus on telling the rest of the story.

The second story included, "The Concrete Jungle" was shorter and flowed better, he seems to have moved on from the need to explain EVERY scientific principle in graphic scientific lingo and just use it to tell the story. And the story benefited from that in that it was far creepier and thrilling than the first one.

I did enjoy the crazy world he created and enjoyed the protagonist, and I'm willing to try the others in the series, I just wish he had let the story shine more than the techno babble and allowed more of the inherent dread and creepiness to dominate.
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LibraryThing member andy47
A cracker. My only regret is that the initial story isn't any longer. The essay at the end of the book talking about the intersection of horror and spy thrillers is a fascinating and thought provoking piece.
LibraryThing member amandrake
What would happen if the people running the IT department were *literally* saving the world while you weren't watching, using magic based on *very* esoteric mathematical formulae?
This tightly written thriller is vaguely Lovecraftian, though I feel it has more in common with Mike Carey's Felix Castor novels. The genre is not easily definable - I suppose you could cheat and call it science fiction, but I would call it spy thriller/horror/office politics. The snarky-but-funny, smart-mouthed main character is a good balance for the grim scenarios and "struggling against the tide" storyline.
I would recommend this book to any IT worker without reservation, and a large portion of the San Francisco Bay Area besides (we get it by osmosis, you know).

Note that this is not a novel, but a novella and a short story packaged together, along with a forward by Len Deighton and an afterword by the author, neither of which were particularly interesting to me, but that might be a matter of taste.
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LibraryThing member NogDog
A fun combination of spy thriller, Lovecraftian horror, and techno-geek sci-fi.


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

273 p.; 5.5 inches


1930846258 / 9781930846258

Local notes

Inscribed (Dublin, August 2019).
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