Let me start by saying I’ve got all of Charlie Stross’ books and I regularly read his blog. I find him entertaining and interesting. I am looking forward to his next book (Rule 34, sequel to Halting State) and will buy it soon after it has been released.
The Fuller Memorandum is the third in the “Laundry” series. Ostensibly the book follows Bob Howard, a public servant in a British government department tasked with fighting paranormal threats foreign and domestic. The prior two books, The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue had a strong dose of sardonic wit and plenty of geeky in-jokes. They were reasonably well paced, put the characters in believable (or unbelievable) jeopardy, and made me smile at their cleverness.
With that said, this most recent book, “The Fuller Memorandum” feels unfinished. This book lacks the polish of some of his other works and the plotting and pace seem vaguely off. The climax didn’t feel entirely climactic. The geekiness was confined to some commentary about how shiny a new iPhone was. It seems to me that it would have been more in character for the geeks working in The Laundry to be going ga-ga and reprogramming an Android phone (or some other phone with a highly customizable and reprogrammable OS). A book released in mid 2010 with Howard using an iPhone for the first time seemed to strike a wrong note. Howard seems like the sort of guy that would take it all matter of fact by this stage. William Gibson did a far better job in Zero History of reflecting the “SmartPhone Zeitgeist” then Stross did – which is kinda surprising because Stross is probably far geekier than Gibson.
It isn’t about the phone, but the approach to the phone is part of the discordant chime that echoes through the novel. The novel doesn’t have the joy in embracing the lead character’s geekiness that the previous two did. There isn’t as much nerdiness in this book. When you take away Bob Howard’s geekiness, but don’t really replace it with anything else, the character becomes more two dimensional and less interesting. Howard also repeatedly made odd and silly mistakes, something that again seemed out of character given previous behavior. It was the repeatedly part that got me. At one point I was thinking “you are kidding, he only realises that he’s up shit creek after not paying attention again?”
Perhaps my ambivalence about Fuller Memorandum also comes from reading China Mieville’s Kraken at about the same time. Both are published at around the same time and there are some thematic similarities between the two books – both involve a groups of British Civil Servants defeating a paranormal induced apocalypse (though in Mieville’s it is a unit of the Metropolitan police and they aren’t the main characters). Mieville’s is far more literary and he brought off the paranormal apocalypse near-miss in “oughties” London with far more panache.