The Fuller Memorandum, by Charles Stross
The Fuller Memorandum is the first novel I have read entirely on a mobile phone.
Amazon UK recently launched the new wave of Kindles. I placed an order for one, which should arrive next week. In the meantime, I thought I’d check out the Kindle software and the range of books on offer. To do so I put the Kindle app on my iPhone and then used that to download some book samples.
The Kindle app is surprisingly easy to use. Good resolution, easy page turns, power hungry though. Anyway, I found I could read on it easier than I expected. I got curious about how it would cope with a full work, and decided to order something light and not-too-serious to test it out with.
At the same time of course I’ve been reading Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude. It turns out though that there are many situations where one can read on a mobile but where reading a novel is impractical. The result is I’ve finished a whole novel on my phone while I’m still only half way through the (excellent) Hamilton.
I’ll say a few more words about the phone reading experience and its wider implications, then I’ll talk about The Fuller Memorandum itself. For the curious, it’s a very geeky comedy-horror novel and most of the folk who read this blog probably won’t be interested in it. I’ll flag when I start talking about that so if it’s not your thing you can skip that part of this blog entry.
Also, I still think Kindle is the ugliest name for an ereader I’ve encountered. Seriously Amazon, you named your ereader by reference to bookburning? Extraordinary.
Anyway. The Kindle app is quite interesting. You can change font size, which for me means you I tend to have about two paragraphs per screen. You can bookmark “pages” (screens) and you can highlight words to check them in the dictionary (online and immediately) or to enter notes against them. That meant as I went through I was able to input notes directly against the text. A small number appears against the word you make the note against, and a menu option shows you all notes and bookmarks and lets you go straight to any of them.
Pageturning is very fast, which meant that although each individual page was a small fraction of a real page in practice reading was still fluid. Contrast is good, and the lit screen didn’t weary my eyes as computer screens do (I don’t know why not). That lit screen though meant it was a battery life hog, which isn’t ideal.
Overall, I was able to read the novel easily and without the interface getting in the way. Because it was on a mobile phone I was able to read it at odd moments in the day, with the result that I read it far faster than I had expected. All of this has implications. What it implies for me is that the killer ereader device the industry is waiting for isn’t a dedicated reader at all. Nor is it the iPad (for me a firmly transitional device). The killer ereader is the mobile phone.
With better battery life/energy usage, there’s no reason one couldn’t read multiple novels in this format. Obviously I prefer physical books, and when my actual Kindle arrives I imagine I’ll prefer that too due to screen size issues. But this was a much better experience than I had expected. I’m still not sure I’d read a serious novel in this format (I have a sample of Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling on it, from NYRB, but I’d rather read that on the full device or in traditional book form) but for light entertainment it’s arguably better than the traditional form.
For existing heavy readers, indeed for any heavy readers, the phone is unlikely to be anything more than a supplemental device (if even that). For new demographics though who have grown up accessing news through smartphones, reading the internet on them, using them for chat functions and gaming and as a general purpose tool I think this is much more viable. The fact the same software allows me to read a book on my phone or on my full Kindle (and the software reconciles the versions on each device so that each knows where your bookmarks are and what page you’re up to) means that a book can be purchased electronically but read on a number of devices – potentially here iPhone, iPad and Kindle.
Again, I don’t think that will be much of a draw for existing heavy readers. Going forward though, I think it will be irresistible for many casual and new readers.
Speaking personally, there are books I buy that I expect to keep. I make an attempt to seriously engage with them, I hope for greatness. Those books I suspect I’ll still tend to want hardcopies of because I’m sentimental that way. Some publishers, Pushkin, Peirene, produce books which are attractive physical objects in their own right. That will still appeal to me.
For me though there are also books I buy as light entertainment. That’s not knocking them, good light entertainment is tricky stuff. But I don’t want to seriously engage with them, I want to be amused and to have a little fun. For those, having a copy after I’ve finished isn’t particularly useful. I probably won’t reread them. They’re not treasured physical objects as a Pushkin might be. They’re just mass market paperbacks. Or, now, a file held remotely on a server somewhere which I can access on the off chance I ever want to read it again.
I’m hopeful the full Kindle device will be useful and will work for me. Even if not though, going forward I suspect I’ll be reading books like The Fuller Memorandum more often on my phone than in a physical edition. In time, I think I’ll be far from alone in that.
And while the literary market won’t be affected nearly as much as the market for lighter books, lighter books outsell literary ones by a vast order of magnitude.
Interesting times. I’m glad I’m not in publishing.
So, over to The Fuller Memorandum itself. If you’re not interested in comedy-horror-SF with heavy Lovecraftian elements and an ocean of geek references then you can probably afford to tune out now.
Charles Stross is one of the best SF writers around today. He’s part of the UK’s renaissance of good hard SF writing, and he’s responsible for such landmark novels as Accellerando (great ideas and vision, lousy characterisation, hard sf in a nutshell really that description).
Stross doesn’t just write hard SF though. He’s also written some cross-reality semi-fantasy novels that I’ve not read (so even that basic description may not be wholly accurate) and some Lovecraft pastiche novels known as the Laundry novels.
The Fuller Memorandum is the third of the Laundry novels. The conceit of each is that the protagonist, Bob Howard, is an operative for an ultra-secret arm of British Intelligence which deals with occult threats to the UK (nicknamed The Laundry). The occult threats in question aren’t the usual ones of ghosts, vampires and so on but rather are entities out of the cosmic horror tales of HP Lovecraft. Aliens beyond our space and time that, when they intrude upon our reality, bring with them madness and death.
We human beings live at the bottom of a thin puddle of oxygen-nitrogen vapor adhering to the surface of a medium-sized rocky planet that orbits a not terribly remarkable star in a cosmos which is one of many. We are not alone. There are other beings in other universes, other cosmologies, that think, and travel, and explore. And there are aliens in the abyssal depths of the oceans, and dwellers in the red-hot blackness and pressure of the upper mantle, that are stranger than your most florid hallucinations. They’re terrifyingly powerful, the inheritors of millennia of technological civilisation; they were building starships and opening timegates back when your ancestors and mine were clubbing each other over the head with rocks to settle the eternal primate diagreement over who had the bigger dick.
The first Laundry novel is a crossover pastiche. It takes the monsters from Lovecraft, and then injects them into a story based on Len Deighton’s spy novels. The result works surprisingly well. It’s funny, makes a bizarre sort of internal sense and the whole thing hangs together better than it has the slightest right to.
The second Laundry novel is in a similar vein, but instead of Deighton this time Ian Fleming is emulated. This worked much less well for me, possibly reflecting the fact the idea wasn’t as fresh or possibly reflecting the fact I rate Len Deighton and I don’t rate Ian Fleming.
The Fuller Memorandum may be based on another spy writer, but if it is I couldn’t tell who.
The comedy of the novels comes from the contrast between the horror and spy elements, and the drabness of British civil service life. As Bob Howard reflects in The Fuller Memorandum while contemplating a super-high-tech-jet-fighter at an air base he’s sent to:
Life would be so much simpler if our adversaries could be dealt with by supersonic death on the wing – but alas, human resources aren’t so easily defeated.
As The Fuller Memorandum opens, the arrival of Case Nightmare Green (the code-name for the moment when the stars come right and the elder horrors flow through to our world en masse bringing the apocalypse with them) looks like it could be mere months away rather than years as was expected. The end of the world may well be nigh, and that’s bringing out of the woodwork crazed cultists and possible former cold-war adversaries.
Bob Howard has a new line manager, but his duties now are almost entirely for the strange and menacing figure of Angleton. Angleton is a major player within The Laundry, and an accomplished sorceror. Howard is a computer programmer by background, and since magic is really a form of higher mathematics the journey from mathematician to sorceror (or inadvertent sorceror, a usually fatal condition) is a short one. Howard is also, following the last two books, a highly experienced field agent.
After an accident in the field, Howard is put on compulsory leave, but not before Angleton asks him to look into certain files in the Laundry’s archives. Meanwhile, cultists seem to be targeting Howard’s girlfriend and fellow-operative Mo, and it starts to appear as if the Laundry may itself have a mole passing secrets on to those cultists (suggesting a Le Carre inspiration here, though I understand Stross doesn’t like Le Carre’s writing and if that is an inspiration it’s not one worn heavily).
The plot has a few twists and turns, but while it drives the action it’s not a novel one reads for that plot. What’s interesting here is Stross’s take on the Lovecraftian mythos and his contrasting of the frustrations of living in London with its malfunctioning tube system and muggy summers with the cosmic horrors that lurk in its shadows.
I had a sense in this book of Stross hitting his stride with this series. As I said above, the second wasn’t wholly successful for me and I thought the Bond elements too large for the comedy which was about the smallness of much British life. The first novel worked better, but is essentially a short story and a novella bolted together to form a longer work that isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Here the novel is just that, a properly integrated novel, and the scale is better judged.
The Fuller Memorandum is packed with in-jokes. So many that I very much doubt I caught them all. Many are gaming references. When Bob buys an iPhone his girlfriend mocks him saying “‘Bob loses saving throw vs. shiny with a penalty of -5. Bob takes 2d8 damage to the credit card…’” Later, when captured by cultists, Bob worries they might be vampire larpers and reflects “the prospect of falling into the clutches of the Brotherhood of the Black Pharoah is quite bad enough without accidentally crossing the streams with a bunch of live-action Vampire: The Masquerade fans”.
I noticed a reference to an undead horde at one point forming an “abhuman pyramid” with their bodies, a clear reference to William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories (which I’ve covered here in case you’re reading this and hadn’t seen that entry) and there’s plenty of other in-jokes. Essentially, if you’re not steeped in geek culture then you’ll miss a lot of this (and you probably won’t enjoy much the bits you do get).
If, however, you are steeped in geek culture then this is a lot of fun. Stross’s take on Lovecraft seems to owe a lot more to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game than it does HPL’s actual stories (though apparently Stross hadn’t read Delta Green when he wrote the first novel so those particular similarities are just coincidence), but I grew up with Call of Cthulhu so that’s fine with me.
The computer, sf and horror jokes generally work well. The characters are straightforward (to be nice) and the writing not Stross’s best by a long way (there’s a surprising amount of repetition and some overly heavy handed foreshadowing, plus sometimes the gags get too obvious and get in the way of the story) but this is a 21st Century pulp novel – an electronic penny dreadful – and in that vein it works very well.
Stross’s best work for me is his hard sf. That said, his Laundry stories are a lot of fun, for the ultra-geeky audience they’re aimed at. If you’re going to read a novel on your mobile phone, frankly I can think of few more apposite.
All the more so since The Fuller Memorandum features a lengthy skit on the iPhone and it’s peculiar power to charm people into buying it even though it’s not remotely clear to them what they’ll use it for. It’s an irony Bob Howard would appreciate.