The Jennifer Morgue

Reviewer: Christian Ternus

Author: Charles Stross

Published: 2006

Reviewed: 2006-12-10

Publisher: Golden Gryphon Press

"The Jennifer Morgue" is the sequel to Charles Stross' novel, "The
Atrocity Archives," and features the return of Bob Howard, computer
geek turned computational demonologist extraordinaire. The book
continues Stross' delightful style from the first book, blending
elements of Neal Stephenson's references to hacker culture,
Lovecraftian eldritch horrors, and Tom Clancy's spy thrillers.

The background of the series, in a nutshell, is that throughout modern
history, people have been discovering that certain types of
mathematical computations (e.g. the "Turing-Lovecraft Theorem") can
create holes into other planes, causing Unspeakable Horrors of various
sorts to come through. Shortly after they discover this, they are
either a) very dead or b) conscripted. See, like many other
discoveries in history, the government has gotten there first, and
dealt with the matter in a staggeringly inefficient, bureaucratic

Bob Howard works for the Laundry, a British government agency tasked
with managing interactions with the occult. As the book says, it's
somewhere between "No Such Agency" and "Destroy Before Reading." How
the Laundry gets recruits can best be described by a direct
(non-spoiler) quote from "The Jennifer Morgue":

"The Laundry collects computer scientists who stumble across the
elements of computational demonology in much the same way that
Stalin used to collect jokes about himself [footnote: He had two
Gulags full.]. About six years ago I nearly landscaped
Wolverhampton, not to mention most of Birmingham and the Midlands,
while experimenting with a really neat, new rendering algorithm that
just might have accidentally summoned up the entity known to the
clueful as 'f*ck, it's Nyarlathotep! Run!' (and to everyone else as
'F*ck, run!')"

The plot of the book is genuinely intriguing---I read the book
straight through in one sitting. Bob Howard is tasked with stopping a
rogue billionaire from raising something dark and terrible (code-named
JENNIFER MORGUE) from the vasty deeps of the ocean (where the Great
Old Ones live---good thing we have a treaty with them, right?). In
order to do this, a powerful invocation called a "Hero geas" requires
him to step into the role of... well, I won't give it away. There is
fast-paced spy action with a generous measure of humor (much of it
side-splittingly hilarious). The main character is paired with an
agent from the Black Chamber (the terrifying US counterpart to the
Laundry) named Ramona Random, a "beautiful but deadly" operative who
defies accurate description. The plot has some interesting twists and
turns, and the book never takes itself too seriously ("You think
you're joking? He *monologued* at me. With *PowerPoint*."). I could
quote endlessly from it, but I won't---it's a treasure trove of
humorous quotes.

One thing I love about the book is how it transitions almost
seamlessly from mission briefings (delivered directly into the
subconscious, of course) to summoning ancient terrors from the deeps
(of which there are two sorts: those code-named BLUE HADES, who you
really, really don't want to mess with, and those code-named DEEP
SEVEN, who, well, let's just say BLUE HADES are afraid of them) to
making references to hacker culture (Slashdot, Linux, etc.). The two
books it reminded me the most of were Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon.
Bob Howard goes straight from talking about computational demonology
to complaining about Microsoft PowerPoint without pausing for
breath---and it works.

If you're a geek, you'll probably love this book. There are so many
references to modern geek culture and humor (when I was reading it in
the kitchen, my dorm-mates commented that they'd never seen me
laughing so hard). At times, the cultural references were so specific
and appropriate that I just stared and said, "I can't believe this
book exists"---and I mean that in the best possible way.

The main character is very much a geek: when confronting one of the
primary villains, he stares him straight in the face---and makes a
Slashdot reference (which is funny even if you don't get it, but
absolutely hilarious if you do). He also gets very nervous when
people try to separate him from his electronics; after all, "to
compute is to be." Quoth Bob Howard, "Give me a bottle of Mountain
Dew, an MP3 player hammering out something by VNV Nation, and a crate
of Pringles, that's like being at home. Give me root access on a
hostile necromancer's server farm, and I *am* at home."

If you're not a geek, however, you probably won't get many of the
references in the book. It's still worth reading, though, especially
if you enjoyed the first book. I would *not* recommend reading this
book before the first.

What parts didn't I like? I did *not* like "Pimpf," the short story
that accompanies the book (it takes place almost entirely within a
Neverwinter Nights game---no, really). I would almost recommend
skipping the short story, especially if you have as much of a
gut-level aversion to leet-speak as I do. It is not, in my opinion,
up to par with any other Bob Howard stories. I believe it really
overemphasizes the geek/gamer references while minimizing the
spy/occult aspects that make the other stories so good.

What would I recommend? Read the first book and see if you like it.
If you liked it, run, don't walk, and get ahold of "The Jennifer
Morgue." Seriously, go NOW. It may be the most fun book you've read
in a long time---it certainly was for me.

NOTE: "The penny drops" is British slang for finally understanding
something. This will be relevant if you read this book.