The Atrocity Archives is pretty enjoyable if you’re part of the vanishingly small target audience. I like espionage novels, and I’m a computer geek who knows a fair bit about the history of the field, and I like H.P. Lovecraft, so the book worked for me. But man, it’s dense-pack fiction. You need to know who Turing was and it helps to understand what a device driver is and you ought to be steeped in sysadmin/programmer culture and the espionage bits build on the work of Le Carre and Len Deighton.
Possibly Atrocity Archives should come with annotations, like “The Waste Land.”
I should note that I don’t see anything wrong with any of this; in fact, I rather like it. It’s OK for novels to be difficult. I’m certainly not going to castigate Charlie Stross for writing difficult novels that happen to fall within my area of expertise. Nobody complains that James Joyce was pandering to linguists, after all.
So, yeah: in the afterword, Stross explains that the conceit of the novel is that the horror of Lovecraft and the Cold War espionage of Len Deighton have a lot in common. The big difference, in his mind, is that the espionage hero has hope and the Lovecraftian hero doesn’t. (Or if he does, he shouldn’t.) But he draws pretty convincing links between the amorphous horror of the Lovecraft mythos and the inhuman horror of pending nuclear war.
Certainly the fusion works in the writing itself. You replace the threat of weapons of mass destruction with the threat of invading entities from another dimension, and everything kind of falls into place. The structure is, alas, weakened by the interjection of Dilbert-esque corporate satire; it’s hard for me to believe that a top-secret occult espionage organization runs on a matrix management style. I don’t mind that the hero is a Neal Stephenson hacker — the fish out of water stuff works well — but I do mind that he seems to have somehow convinced his agency to turn into a 90s dot-com.
Apart from that, though, it was a good read with fairly interesting characters. Nobody makes any permanent sacrifices, but the threats are convincing and Stross can write horrific passages when he’s not being overly clever; the descriptions of the relics in Amsterdam are very chilling.