Book #135: The Jennifer Morgue (2006)

author: Charles Stross
language: English
length: 349 pages (main story) + 28 pages (extra short story)
finished reading on: 5 May 2017

It’s been a while, but I read another of Charles Stross’s novels about a year and a half ago – Neptune’s Brood – and I bought this book fairly soon afterwards, but didn’t get around to giving it a proper read until this year.

Like Neptune’s Brood, the prose is pretty thick and the vocabulary is quite technical at the best of times. There are words in there that I had to look up, and others that I had to reread several times to get a good sense of what was meant. So it took me a bit of effort to finish the book.

The book is about a guy called Bob Howard who is a member of a super-covert section of MI6 that deals with the paranormal. He’s a computer nerd through-and-through, very attached to what in 2006 must have been an early prototype of a smartphone and tablet PC. I was surprised, indeed, that those words were used. This is partly why the book has a lot of higher-level technical vocabulary, because the author doesn’t shy away from spelling out exactly how his character uses Linux shells and various kinds of scripting languages to carry out his occult tasks.

It’s actually the second book in the series, although the first book was actually two novellas bundled together, so this is the first full-length novel. There are details here and there that allude to previous events, such as when the main character met his girlfriend. I felt at these points I might have missed out, but they ultimately weren’t so important.

The main character is sent on a mission to the Caribbean by his handlers, but they don’t really tell him what the mission will involve, in a spectacular double-bluff which only becomes clear after several big reveals. He is “entangled” to an underwater-demon-woman, meaning that they share thoughts – this kind of “talking” is indicated with stars instead of quotation marks. She can also make him orgasm and vice-versa, meaning that the humour takes an early adult turn, and they find they can share abilities, like being able to breathe underwater. There are some Cthulhu-esque underwater tentacle monsters that are referred to by codewords – the titular Jennifer Morgue is one such codeword. There is also a Blofeld-esque villain, and a lot of the book explicitly satirizes James Bond tropes – indeed, the characters discuss the tropes openly.

In general, I liked it. I thought it was funny, and I felt smart for understanding some of Stross’s more exotic turns of phrase, even though this meant the book was difficult to read. And although it was a bit bawdy at times, it also stayed on the right side of leery about its female characters – I’ve read some other books recently with straight male protagonists that were overly fixated on their breasts. This also managed to subvert some gendered expectations of the characters, especially in a particular one of the endgame twists.

It also contained an extra short story called Pimpf, which I was able to read in one sitting, about someone being sucked into an online multiplayer game, in the style of World of Warcraft. It was more nerdy than the main story, and was but the germ of an idea – but it was somewhat like a better-written version of Ready Player One, with added office pettiness.

So if you like sci-fi/fantasy liberally peppered with nerdy computer references, this might be for you. I would stop short of recommending it to everyone, though – I think you need a certain level of interest in the topics.

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Book #95: Neptune’s Brood (2013)

neptunesbroodAuthor: Charles Stross
Language: English
Length: 338 pages
Finished reading on: 4 December 2015

I’ve seen the name of Charles Stross a few times on sci fi recommendations lists (and apparently he lives in my hometown, so I have a kind of parochial self-interest), so I thought I’d finally try out one of his books sometime last year – I should perhaps be clear that I don’t know when this was, because it took me a long time to read the book. I only finished in in December.

I relish a challenge, so the higher level of vocabulary in this book than I’m used to pleased me at first, but it became clear later on that many of the words are invented for the purpose of explaining some of the weird concepts that the book employs – a lot of which would have simple equivalents that the author could have used instead.

The book is an ideas book first and foremost, and the plot itself takes some time to pick up steam. I found it only managed a sense of tension in the third act or so, but the twists and unreliable narrator aspect made this worth waiting for in the end.

The concept of the book is a humanity that has conquered the stars, but it’s not actually humanity as we know it anymore – the people in the novel’s universe are actually sophisticated androids. The economic system is the cornerstone of their universe and the primary interest of the main character, so the book spends a lot of time discussing that. One key idea is that of fast, medium and slow money – essentially, cash, bonds and investments, and the new concept of a secure crypto-currency used to invest in star colonies, that by its very nature would take a long time to process and see any return. One “slow dollar” seems to be worth millions of “fast dollars”.

This permeates down to the very lowest levels of this hypercapitalistic society – the cells of each android’s body, described with one of Stross’s creative coinages with a “nano” prefix, are described as having to be individually convinced of the economic benefit of forming together into a human body. It doesn’t sound like a very appealing world to me, to be honest – the other thing is that these humans eat some kind of reconstituted protein sludge instead of actual food.

Stross is then very good at exploring the ramifications of such a world – like people becoming bloodthirsty zombies when they go into a kind of starvation mode, and some of the things that these post-humans can do. But this all serves as an alienation device for me, especially when he describes normal processes like eating and excretion with overly pseudo-scientific babble. Similarly, the main character was a little difficult to relate to, because she doesn’t have strong emotions about many things.

I liked this enough to want to try more of Stross’s novels – but I’m not sure I’d recommend it outright. As I said, it’s a bit dry, and the plot’s direction is unclear. I’m a bit of a sucker for half-decent sci fi, though. (And it has female characters, unusually for the genre!)