Friday, January 18, 2008

Review: The Jennifer Morgue

Charlie Stross has written The Jennifer Morgue as a new genre of fiction that I'll now call geek fiction. You might think, what about Cryptonomicon? Is that not geek fiction? The difference is this: while nearly every geek reference in Cryptonomicon is explained, almost none of the geek references in Jennifer Morgue are. That means that mainstream audiences attempting to read Cryptonomicon won't have any problems, but those attempting to read this book will flounder, making this an ideal book for a true test of geek-hood.

So what sort of geek background would you need? First of all, you need to know most of the computer terminology. This includes not just the usual USB drives, hacking into Windows XP Media center, and other paraphernalia, but also references to Alan Turing, for instance. Then, a knowledge of many fantasy literature tropes s assumed, including HP Lovecraft, the Cthulhu Mythos, etc. Finally, stir in a good chunk of the Bond Mythos, and you're all set for a book that only a geek would love.

The plot, such as it is, centers around the usual Bond story of a megalomaniac trying to take over the world by retrieving an ancient device of doom. Our hero, Bob Howard (a reference to Robert E Howard), is sent to investigate and do his best to thwart his plans. Of course, rather than being a suave, well-equipped man of action, Bob Howard is a computer nerd who feels naked without his PDA, and instead of an Aston-Martin is given a Smart car. When confronted with a femme fatale, Bob does not know how to respond, and of course, the said female turns out to have a demon riding her, and has even darker secrets.

The book (and the protagonist) does not take itself seriously. Whenever anything can be played for laughs, it is. For instance, here's the technical briefing:

We've added a Bluetooth host under the driver's seat, and a repurposed personal video player running Linux. Peripheral screens at all five cardinal points, five grams of graveyard dust mixed with oil of Bergamot and tongue of newt in the cigarette lighter socket, and a fully connected Dee-Hamilton circuit glued to the underside of the body shell. As long as the ignition is running, you're safe from possession attempts. If you need to dispose of a zombie in the passenger seat, just punch in the lighter button and wait for the magic smoke. You've got a mobile phone, yes? With Bluetooth and a Java sandbox? Great, I'll email you an applet --- run it, pair your phone with the car's hub, and all you have to do is dial 6-6-6 and the car will come to you, wherever you are...

As the plot unfolds, Bob gets into deeper and deeper trouble, but the scenarios never end up being less funny, and believe it or not, there's even an explanation for all the Bond-like nature of the plot. I was giggling and chortling all through the book.

In addition to the main novel, there are two short pieces in the Golden Gryphon Press edition of the book. One is another short piece about Bob Howard involving the strange kind of office politics that occur in the kind of organization he works for. The other piece, The Golden Age of Spying is a satirical analysis of the fiction of Ian Fleming, and an interview with one of Bond's villains.

All in all, this is a great book, and I'm surprised I didn't discover it earlier. I'm going to be hunting down (or buying) a copy of The Atrocity Archives next. Needless to say, highly recommended if you're a geek. A muggle should stay away, for there are things muggles are not meant to know.
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