Book Review: “The Nightmare Stacks” by Charles Stross

The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

How can anyone even live in England? It appears to be under supernatural assault all the time (e.g., here here and in America, too here here), and has multiple secret government agencies desperately defending the realm from these threats. Is anyone in Britain not employed in a supernatural secret service?

This book is the seventh novel about “The Laundry”, and Stross is the absolute master of this genre. His dry wit combines pedestrian bureaucratic process, nerdy tech, and Lovecraftian horrors (i.e., brain suckers with tentacles) into a humorously self consistent alternate reality—overlaid on our everyday world. In this world, a “brain sucking powerpoint presentation” is not a metaphor, it is a terror weapon. Job titles might be “computational daemonologist” or “combat epistomologiest”.

Following the disastrous events recounted in “The Annihilation Score”, the Laundry is rushing to defend against the suite emerging existential threats, code named CASE NIGHTMARE RAINBOW. The increase use of higher mathematics by humans, computers, and nowadays, every damned toaster, is noisily leaking throughout the multiverse, broadcasting the message: “Brains are here, come and get it.”  This loud dinner bell is waking and attracting many powerful forces.

CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN appears to be in progress (see the earlier book “The Annihilation Score”, and other colors of this nightmare stack may be in the offing soon.

The action here mainly unfolds in Leeds, where the Laundry is establishing a new HQ, dispersing assets away from the capital in preparation for eminent catastrophe and war.

Plucky young Alex Schwartz was recruited after the earlier deadly attack on the Laundry (see “The Annihilation Score”), and has rushed into service only half trained. Unfortunately, Leeds turns out to be a lot hotter than expected, and dire events unfold all around Alex. Yikes. CASE NIGHTMARE RED! In Yorkshire!  Taking a new girlfriend to his parents house is not the worst horror he must face (though it is a nightmarish event).

The plot is fast and complex, with the usual dry humor, literate allusions, and calm acceptance of outlandishly crazy paranormal phenomena juxtaposed with monstrous red tape. Alex is much more comfortable dealing with uncanny horrors from beyond than the arcane defenses of his reimbursement forms.

Alex works with other Laundry personnel (all of them pretty darn plucky themselves), and these are interesting and strange people. The Laundry’s “diversity policies” are really, really, really diverse!

The crew at Leeds includes the authors alter ego super-nerds, Pinky and the Brain. How much of these two is autobiographical and how much is just wish fulfillment? (I mean, Stross clearly would love to have a hovercraft and rebuilt Nazi halftrack motorcycle in the garage.  Does he actually have them?).

We have good reason to suspect that Stross had a pleasant visit to Leeds (probably for the anime festival), and may well have scoped out various hideous strip malls, appalling modern architecture, and other sites that deserved to be demolished in his fictional battles.

This is a great story, fun to read and full of human spirit—even if many of the characters are actually “school of” homo sapiens.

Get it, read it, enjoy it. (You probably shoud read everything you can find by Charles Stross.)


  1. Charles Stross, The Nightmare Stacks, New York, Ace Books, 2016.

 

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