When Charles Stross isn’t writing mind-blowing space opera about the future of banking, he’s the ultra-prolific author of two long-running series. And one of those, the Laundry Files, has won praise (and a Best Novella Hugo) for its look at a spy agency that deals with other-worldly threats.
We’ve got the exclusive first look at the next Laundry Files book, The Nightmare Stacks—and Stross explains just how this book changes everything in his world.
Here’s the synopsis for The Nightmare Stacks, which comes out in June 2016:
Alex Schwartz had a promising future – until he contracted an unfortunate bout of vampirism, and agreed to join the Laundry, Britain’s only counter-occult secret agency.
His first assignment is in Leeds – his old hometown. The thought of telling his parents that he’s lost his old job, let alone them finding out about his ‘condition’, is causing Alex more anxiety than learning how to live as a vampire secret agent preparing to confront multiple apocalypses.
His only saving grace is Cassie Brewer, a green-haired goth who flirts with him despite his awkward personality and massive amounts of sunblock.
But Cassie has secrets of her own – secrets that make Alex’s night life seem positively normal . . .
This is a huge, major change of pace for the Laundry Files series. So we had to ask Stross what was up. Here’s what he told us!
How has the Laundry Files series changed and evolved in the dozen years or so that you’ve been writing it? Are there elements that you’re still surprised became so prominent?
I’ve been writing the Laundry Files series for 16 years at this point. When I began, I intended the short novel “The Atrocity Archive” (published with “The Concrete Jungle” in the book “The Atrocity Archives” — note the plural!) as a one-shot. It was only a few years later, when people began asking for more, that I had any idea of writing a sequel, and only with the third book, 8 years in, that I realized I needed a Plan. And because the book’s narrator, Bob, had been aging in line with the real world as I wrote the first three books, the most obvious plan was: track Bob’s career as he grows older, more senior, and more cynical.
This turned out to be a really fortuitous choice. It allowed me to fix some minor inconsistencies in the earlier books; because they’re Bob’s workplace memoir, he often gets the wrong end of the stick at first then learns better about some aspect of the job over time. It also allowed me to deepen him as a character, adding complexity to the narrative as he ages and possibly becomes more self-aware (although he doesn’t really have to grow up until books 8 or 9).
What I really wasn’t expecting was that Bob’s life would take over — and that the most important events in it would end up taking place off-screen, so far off-screen that I needed to pick new narrative voices! His wife Mo, for example, exhibits a very unvarnished perspective on Bob’s seemingly bottomless reserves of self-delusion in “The Annihilation Score”, and demonstrates that the series is very much about the Laundry as an organization, rather than just being Tales of Bob. And in “The Nightmare Stacks” I had to leave Bob behind entirely in order to give a worm’s eye view of the start of events that will give rise (eventually) to the climax of the series.
This book features a new character, Alex, instead of Bob. What’s the reason for switching focus?
In “The Atrocity Archives” Bob starts out as a twenty-something tech support guy who has blundered into a Len Deighton spy thriller (with added tentacles). By the start of “The Rhesus Chart”, Bob has leveled up so far that he can wade into a nest of vampires — admittedly rather inexperienced vampires — and escape with mildly damaged dignity and a stack of paperwork. Power-ups are a constant problem for any multi-book series that riffs off the Hero’s Journey: how do you engage with the underdog when your protagonist has risen from Midshipman to Admiral of the Fleet?
Alex is in some ways not dissimilar to Bob in his early incarnation. There are drastic differences: Alex has powers of his own — although they come at a drastic price. But Alex takes us back to the guy who gets sent to fix the cabling rather than spending all his time in policy meetings. And he’s got a young guy’s problems and social anxieties, unlike Bob (who by this point is in his early forties).
Also is a vampire protagonist harder to write in some ways? And what sort of vampire lore did you decide to stick with?
The Laundry has been a fun sandpit for playing with occult parasites ever since the second book (“The Jennifer Morgue” — if you look at it through the right lens, the cat is a parasite), and I developed this through side-stories like “Down on the Farm” and “Equoid”. In “Down on the Farm” I examined the micro-scale parasites that chow down on the brains of ritual magicians (as opposed to the body-stealing mega-parasites they’re usually attempting to summon); and then in “The Rhesus Chart” I took a look at how brain-chewing microparasites might form a continuum with symbiotes at the other end.
The Laundry Files vampires are of this kind: they’re parasites, but rather than killing their host, they use their host as a vehicle to bring them into contact with their food. I wanted to take a pick-axe to the more overt religious associations of the various trad vampire mythologies, so I basically rolled my own variety. And of course, having invented a fascinating but really ugly commensal organism that gives its host certain abilities in exchange for food, I figured I had to explore the psychological effects on the carriers.
Which are, of course, drastic: the cost of PHANG syndrome is high enough that most sane people who realize what they’ve become take a walk in the daylight immediately. The only reason Alex is able to exist is because a certain organization has a use for him and takes highly dubious steps to keep him alive.
You’ve hinted on your blog that this book features a “worst case scenario” for a Code Nightmare Red, or alien invasion, that involves elves. And that the events of this book cannot be covered up or dismissed as a mass hallucination. Is this book a turning point for the series? Is it all going public after this?
Yup, it’s a turning point! It’s also set explicitly in March/April of 2014. Up to this point, the Laundry Files have unfolded in step with the calendar, so that the first novel is set circa 2002-2003. But from here on, the history of this universe rapidly diverges from our own ...
What’s next for the Laundry Files series?
That’s the novel currently titled “The Delirium Brief”, book 8 in the series. It’s set about a month later, and deals with the explosive repercussions of the Laundry coming to light in the middle of the biggest political and military crisis since the Second World War. The narrative viewpoint switches back to Bob again — and it opens with him being shoved into a TV studio in London to be roasted alive on Newsnight by a certain famous British news presenter ...
And here’s the full-sized U.S. cover for The Nightmare Stacks, revealed exclusively on io9:
And here’s the U.K. cover, also exclusively at io9: