The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross
The Delirium Brief, which is a finalist for the 2018 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, is the eighth novel in Charles Stross’ LAUNDRY FILES. Don’t even bother with it if you haven’t read most of the previous novels — you’ll be totally lost. (And, of course, my review of this installment will contain some spoilers for the previous books.)
For decades the Laundry, a heretofore unknown British government agency, has been protecting its citizens (and others around the world) from the eldritch horrors that exist outside our universe. In modern times, the way these entities usually breach the veil between worlds is through the activities of unwitting hackers, mathematicians, and philosophers who start poking around where they shouldn’t.
Until recently, these facts were kept secret from the general public, but in the previous book, The Nightmare Stacks, an Elvish invasion sparked a military response and now everyone knows about the Laundry and, frankly, they aren’t too impressed. They are annoyed that the Laundry didn’t prevent the incursion, or the casualties and property damage, and they are even more horrified to discover an unregulated government agency in their midst.
Bob Howard, our lowly sysadmin who started at the Laundry years ago, is now in a senior management position due to a “clearing out of the org chart.” His estranged wife, Mo, is also moving up the ladder. Bob and Mo still love each other, but due to their conflicting supernatural powers, they are afraid to live together. Mo says, “mutually assured destruction is not a reasonable basis for a marriage.”
But there’s not much time for Bob and Mo to work on their marriage because an old (in more ways than one) enemy has resurfaced: It’s Reverend Raymond Schiller, the televangelist from The Apocalypse Codex, and he’s even more evil than before! His cult, which owns numerous properties, companies, and politicians in the United States, is plotting to make the paths straight for the imminent arrival of their god (who is NOT the one they publicly claim on TV).
When one of Schiller’s defense companies makes a deal with the British government to take over the Laundry’s contract, the entire world is in grave danger and the Laundry feels forced to resort to aligning itself with a lesser evil. (And other questionable and not quite legal tactics.)
The Delirium Brief is exciting and amusing from the first paragraph until the last. The focus on Bob, our favorite character, is a welcome return to form for the series, but all of the supporting cast is there too, including Mo, of course, as well as Alex, Cassie, Persephone, Mhari, and even some surprises. The usual bureaucracy-bashing is present (“Power corrupts, but Powerpoint corrupts absolutely”) making The Delirium Brief funny, even though it’s so dark. The religious rituals observed by Reverend Schiller and his crew provide some horror elements which reminded me of Stross’ Hugo Award-winning novella Equoid. This part of the story is quite disturbing.
In the end, the Laundry made some choices that are sure to come back to bite them. I can’t wait to find out what happens next in The Labyrinth Index, scheduled for release in October. I listened to the audio version of The Delirium Brief which was produced by Recorded Books and narrated by actor Gideon Emery. He’s terrific. This book is nearly 14 hours long.
There were some amusing one liners in this one, but overall the tone was very grim. Stross is going for a full frontal assault on late capitalism and its corruption and cronyism. The Sleeper in the Pyramid and the Black Pharaoh (and whoever’s taking over the Nazgul) stand in for the mega-powerful unseen players who can buy and sell presidents, prime ministers, and legislatures. And the lesser evil the Laundry stalwarts choose to throw in with is still very, very bad–so their choice stands in for the average voter’s choices on election day in the US and the UK (“lesser evilism” being a strategic voting tactic that major parties actually use to sell their tainted product). And let’s not even get into the castration symbolism and what it means!
The high point is that Mo and Bob get to sleep together again. That part made me happy.
I read somewhere that this book was delayed due to Brexit — that he had to re-write a significant portion due to the new political climate.
It will be very interesting to see what happens in the next book. As they say, the Laundry have made their bed and now they’ve got to lie in it!