Review: The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

It's been a while since I've gotten from one end to the other of a book.  I hate when that happens.  But it's always a good feeling to break out of that kind of groove, when I find a book that's too good to stop reading.  In the last week or two, I've been spending every spare moment with Charles Stross's The Atrocity Archives. I don't think there's anything particularly spoiler-y about this post, but I'll put the rest below the fold, to be safe.

Thing 1:  I totally didn't realize that this was two books.

The Atrocity Archives, the physical object that is the book, contains two stories: The Atrocity Archives, the novel, and The Concrete Jungle, the subsequent novella.  They are both excellent, and you can read all the way through the book without knowing that.  It just seems like there's a weirdly massive climax about two thirds of the way through the book, then the story entirely shifts focus to a completely different issue for like five chapters.

What actually happens is, there are two stories about the main character, Bob Howard, that happen one right after the other.  The circumstances of Bob's life that are relevant to The Concrete Jungle are all set up in the Atrocity Archives.

Thing 2: These books are highly educational.

Not in a boring, lecturey way, but Charles Stross is a genius, and it seems he just can't help dumping unfathomable amounts of incredibly interesting information into his book, which a great number of accompanying Google searches confirmed was mostly true.  (I mean, like, the stuff that wasn't obviously part of the fictional conceit was mostly true.)

But it's not hard to understand.  Not only is there enough well-integrated hand-holding in the story to get you through the plot, but it also never seems to rely so heavily on understanding the relevant concepts that you can't read the book if you don't quite get it.

Thing 3: (the best thing.) The Afterword debriefs you on the informational content of the book, as well as its place in the literary tradition.

The thing about Charles Stross being a genius: he has a blog, Charlie's Diary, that usually consists of really fantastic, brilliant posts.  But a lot of them have a level of required reading that I just can't keep up with.  So it's really cool to discover that, apparently, when you read one of his books, it serves the dual purposes of (a.) being a fantastic and entertaining read that fills up your free time in a satisfying way and meaningfully enriches your experience of the world thereafter, and (b.) prepping you to understand one of Stross's academic pieces.

The next book on my reading list is 1984, because I (gladly) have to re-read it for one of my classes.  I'm sure there will be posts about that as I go -- I read 1984 just before high school, and whenever I revisit it I'm astounded to realize how much of my philosophy and worldview was shaped by that book.

Following that, though, I intend to immediately dive into another Charles Stross book.  Current front-runners are (a.) Rapture of the Nerds (available for free on the interbutts and featuring Cory Doctorow's work as well,) (b.) Glasshouse (I have a copy in my room somewhere), or (c.) The Jennifer Morgue (I really want to keep reading Bob Howard books, but this one is a long shot only because I can't really afford to buy a new paperback right now.)

To wrap this post up, here's a little bit of a recent post of Stross's, demonstrating one of the many areas in which he's just a little bit cleverer than near anyone else:

There's a concept in economics called the diminishing marginal utility of money. Loosely put: if you give a £20 bill to a homeless dude, it will make his day—it's worth a bunch of hot meals or a hostel bed for a few nights. If you give £20 to an average wage earner, it's nice but not a game-changer: it's worth a couple of cinema tickets or a round of drinks at the pub. And if you give £20 to a billionaire they probably won't know what to do with it—they have employees to carry the money around for them, and anyway, they earn more in the time it takes to open their wallet and stash the bill than the £20 note is worth. They're losing money by taking it!

Money. The more of it you've got, the less useful any additional increment becomes. And you don't have to be a millionaire to get a handle for this.