The Delirium Brief, Charles Stross (Tor.com Publishing 978-0-7653-9466-8, $24.99, 381pp, hc) July 2017. Cover by Peter Lutjen
The harried operatives of the demon-wrangling covert service called the Laundry can’t catch a break in Charles Stross’s The Delirium Brief, which picks up in the aftermath of the disastrous cross-universe invasion of last year’s The Nightmare Stacks. The pitched battles with hordes of elven warriors riding unicorns and dragons – and the smoking wreckage in and around Leeds – have made the news in a big way. Magic has been unleashed, the Laundry has been outed, and the basilisk gaze of the political establishment is fixed on it. With almost no warning, the agency finds itself under the worst kind of non-magical attack: by politicians. It is to be reorganized and privatized, personnel sacked, clearances revoked, facilities closed. This is a very hostile hostile takeover, since some key people, including onetime computational demonologist Bob Howard (now promoted, all unwilling, to the condition of Eater of Souls), are forced to go to ground as a result of assassination attempts and faked criminal charges.
The source of the hostility is an offshore organization presenting itself as a free-market thaumaturgical-security contractor, and running that outfit is an old antagonist: the Rev. Schiller of Golden Promise Ministries, from way back in The Apocalypse Codex (2012), last seen on the wrong side of the gate to the universe of the extremely dire Sleeper in the Pyramid, and presumed dead (or eaten or absorbed or whatever). Now he has unaccountably returned and is in charge of the blandly branded GP Services, a much sleeker and more focused operation, prepared to engage the British Establishment at the very highest levels for the very lowest of reasons: to clear the way so his new extradimensional master can take over an entire nation of souls.
To this end, he and others who have been inducted into the secrets of the former Ministries’ Inner Temple are equipped with a physico-spiritual parasite with a dispersal mechanism (aka Elevation) so nasty and so graphically described that there is unlikely to ever be a faithful film dramatization of this volume of the Laundry series. But as squirm-inducing as that is, it’s just special effects compared to the routine cynicism of the material-world threat, the horror of the well-oiled machineries of privatization. As one of Bob’s colleagues puts it, ‘‘We know how to deal with soul-stealing horrors, not death from above by legal sleight-of-hand.’’ How such sleights are managed is the subject of a scornful, detailed three-page passage that is interestingly positioned right after a clinical description of an Elevation via Rev. Schiller’s trouser companion. Privatization and parasitism, neatly paralleled.
The Laundry-story recipe calls for one-third eldritch threat, one-third workplace comic satire, and one-third spy-thriller action. Accordingly, Ingredient Number Three deals with the challenges of maintaining and operating a covert agency when its resources and official authority have been withdrawn and most of its personnel compromised – the challenges of doing the job despite the undermining efforts of corrupted or deluded legal authorities and secret bad guys. Nor is this just a matter of safe houses and tradecraft, but of retaining some degree of legitimacy to act, of determining in whose name the officially defunct Laundry can act, because in this world, names and oaths can have metaphysical and material as well as legal force, and a Laundry warrant card grants not just legal power but Power.
Once that problem has been hashed out (via some dodgy and creative interpretations of lines of authority) and the opposition’s territories and actors have been scouted, the big-push operation against the bad guys occupies most of the last hundred pages – almost a quarter of the text – an extended, multi-viewpoint caper sequence involving actors from the last three books – PHANGs (vampires to the uninitiated), a witch, an elf-queen, an SAS-style commando/combat magician, and even a couple of former Laundry antagonists.
Beneath the playfulness and the fun-poking at bureaucracies and office politics there always lurks genuine fears of genuinely frightening forces. In this case, privatization is, to use currently fashionable language, literally an existential threat – weaponized jargon and bureaucratic procedures. (Although weaponized private parts are not to be ignored, either.) The final showdowns are gaudy and gory but not quite glorious, considering what they cost. This is Stross in one of his darker moods, familiar from the atmosphere of Scratch Monkey, which remains for me a key to understanding his sensibility. I suspect that the political side of the book – the distress at the normal operation of the sausage-factory of government (alluded to in the epigraph) signals some of the real-world anxieties that stand behind this entire series.