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.

Book #12: Good Omens (1990)

authors: Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
language: English
format: audio; read by Stephen Briggs
length: 10 glorious hours
finished on: 2011-04-14

Some book snob might look at the fact that I listened to this in MP3 format rather than reading it in dead tree format and judge me adversely for it. I don’t really care, I still consumed the same words. Actually I’m probably better at listening to stories than I am at reading them sometimes, since if I’m tired I sometimes accidentally skip over a bit. And with audio I can listen to it while walking a lot easier than I can with a proper book. And having an audiobook to listen to encourages me to go for a walk to have an excuse to listen to it, so I get exercise… Oh whatever.

Anyway, this story was very enjoyable and I found myself getting enthralled in it quite easily. A lot of it’s standard Pratchett fare – it uses a lot of the tropes that crop up all the time in Discworld, like the Grim Reaper, and people being generally dense, and that whole “weirdness censor” thing that humans allegedly have. Seeing as I haven’t read any of Gaiman’s other works, I can’t say for sure whether this applies to him as well. I shall have to see (I have since bought one of his books but have yet to start it).

I can’t really be bothered getting into the nitty gritty of it all at the moment, particularly because I finished listening to it two months ago (damn you laziness at updating the blog!). I do remember liking the characters, as a sort of general statement, but finding it a bit too south-of-England-centric (again, roughly standard Pratchett fare then, and it’s never put me off before). One complaint I’d have about the audio version in particular is that Stephen Briggs can’t seem to remember how he’d decided to pronounce the name Crowley; in particular, whether the first syllable rhymed with “low” or “now”. But that’s more of a nitpick and just something that distracted me.

But anyway, those who haven’t read it, which I suspect among my particular group of friends is likely to be a low number of people, go and read it!