2024i18, Thursday: The horror.

2024i18, Thursday: The horror.
Photo by Florian Pinkert / Unsplash

I've said before that there's nothing wrong with a re-read. Good books, particularly good fiction books, deserve to be read more than once. This applies with force to good series: sometimes (and Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London is a prime example) threads of plot and especially character from earlier volumes only become clear once you go back and re-examine them in the light of later events, revelations and experiences. This doesn't mean necessarily that it's all been planned in advance. Often not: a good writer will let their characters evolve over time, and as long as that evolution isn't forced, or subject to deus ex machina leaps of logic, the best sagas will mostly hang together from a character perspective even when viewed with hindsight that the author certainly didn't have when first putting finger to keyboard.

It's with that in mind that I've been revisiting Charles Stross's Atrocity Archives, the first book in his Laundry Files series. If one wanted to pigeon-hole the Laundry books, it'd be as a kind of horror-spy crossover, incorporating (at least initially) thoughtful pastiches of key spy/thriller tropes as means of exploration rather than ends in themselves. (Although this is, of course, a grossly reductive description.)

Oddly enough, though, the bit of the book that I'd remembered the least is the bit that struck me hardest - and prompted this short thought.

It's the afterword, in which Charlie talks about the influences. He describes Len Deighton as one of the 20th century's foremost horror writers, and HP Lovecraft as much as a weaver of spy stories as anything else. And it's a compelling analysis. I'd recommend it to anyone, at least as food for thought for those who, like me, see "genre" as a descriptor of what base content the writer starts with, rather than any sniffy definition of or limitation on a work's actual quality.

But it's his description of growing up in the 70s and 80s which struck home. Charlie's only half a dozen years older than I am, so we're certainly the same broad generation. It's been ages since I really thought about what it meant to have one's consciousness (political, social and otherwise) come into being in a world where there was a genuine, non-zero chance of it all going horribly, rapidly, irreversibly wrong. As he says (with my emphasis):

One of Len Deighton's skills was that he infused the personal dilemmas and conflicts of his protagonists - little men and women trapped in seedy, poorly paid bureaucratic posts - with the shadow of the apocalypse. Cold War spy fiction was in some respects the ultimate expression of horror fiction, for the nightmare was real. There's no need to hint darkly about forbidden knowledge and elder gods, sleeping in drowned cities, who might inflict unspeakable horrors, when you live in an age where the wrong coded message can leave you blinded with your skin half-burned away in the wreckage of a dead city barely an hour later. The nightmare was very real indeed, and arguably it has never ended; but we have become blasé about it, tap dancing on the edge of the abyss because the great motor of ideological rivalry that powered the Cold War has broken down and we're all business partners in globalisation today and forevermore.

And reading that paragraph stopped me dead. I had forgotten that existential sense of dread. The one that arose in a milieu where "When the Wind Blows" was a children's cartoon and no-one thought that was outlandish - though plenty found it (rightly) deeply disturbing. Where people made jokes about "Protect and Survive" because ... well ... what else are you going to do?

And now here we are. The Great Moderation (pause for hollow laughter) is over, killed by the GFF.* Big countries are invading smaller countries because they can, and threatening the use of nuclear weapons along the way. Our innate suspicion of outgroups - one of the amazing things I always found about Japanese as a language was how that whole so very human concept of in- and outgroups was encoded expressly in vocabulary, as uchi vs soto, with no circumlocution at all - weaponised into a particularly vicious treatment of people as things, by our own government and others; partly as a distraction from their gross unpreparedness (if not literal incompetence) for dealing with real problems, but wholly without thought to the probable consequences for our existence as a species. And then there's climate change. Bloody climate change. The ur-example of a situation that creeps up, with horrific yet gradual consequences, and with regard to which - as I sort of touched on yesterday - decisions not to act in hope of better information tomorrow (where, of course, that's sincere rather than another handwave with subtext) have opportunity costs which are simply terrifying.

And I haven't even touched on the discriminatory or damaging possibilities of black-box LLMs on our ability to treat people as people yet. Haven't got the energy today.

This is the world of our kids. They're coming back around to the world in which Charlie and I grew up. In all our decision-making, as voters and citizens and especially (where appropriate) as leaders and people with sway, we may want to remember that. It wasn't a fun world. It was terrifying. It warped attitudes and mutated relationships between people and peoples. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Would you?

*My own personal shorthand for the post-2007 financial and economic meltdown. The words represented by the first two initials are "Great" and "Financial". The third rhymes with "stuck up".