Charles Stross: The Jennifer Morgue

Review of Charles Stross’ novel The Jennifer Morgue.

I enjoy Stross’ books generally, and in specific I enjoyed The Atrocity Archives, his first novel about the Laundry, a British agency tasked with dealing with supernatural threats. The Jennifer Morgue is the sequel.

Our geeky hero Bob Howard is once again sent out to save the world, this time by trying to stop billionaire Ellis Billingsley from extracting elder artifacts from a subterranean graveyard in the Caribbean. In this, he’s paired with Ramona Random, an agent from the United States’ Black Chamber (apparently the Laundry’s counterpart, but more mysterious and crafty). Ramona is not human, but hides this under a glamour; she also has frightening voracious – and fatal – appetites, which creep the hell out of Bob when a spell results in the two of them being psychically linked.

Billingsley, it turns out, has a mystical generator protecting him by being a plot device (literally!) such that only someone filling the role of James Bond in a Bond film can stop him. Since Bond is British, guess who’s been tabbed for this role? The catch is that if a Bondian hero actually gets close to stopping Billingsley, then he could just turn off the generator and off the hapless chump.

I enjoyed The Jennifer Morgue most when it was exploring the world of the Laundry: The first effort – by the US – to raise an item from the Morgue, Billingsley’s background, and the entertaining notion that humanity has a treaty with the Deep Ones who live at the bottom of the ocean. The main story was less rewarding, as it involves a lot of feint-and-counter-feint, but perhaps two or three too many layers of that so that the story doesn’t quite hang together. There’s more going on than meets the eye, but unfortunately it rather undercuts Bob’s role in the story, which made me wonder what the point of it all was. And the presence of Ramona in the story, though an abstractly interesting dilemma for Bob, seemed rather superfluous as well.

At some meta level, I can understand that Stross is deconstructing the Bond films here, recasting them in a considerably different environment. The problem is, I think the Bond films are self-deconstructing, especially after 40+ years of the things; some of them have veered so far into the realm of self-parody that the basic elements of the formula are clear to everyone, and their ridiculousness is equally evident. It seems an unnecessary experiment.

So, although it’s got its clever and entertainment stretches, I don’t think The Jennifer Morgue is a very successful novel. Maybe I just didn’t appreciate what it was trying to do, but the combination of elements just didn’t work for me.

After the novel is a short story, “Pimpf” (the etymology of that title escapes me), in which Bob gets an intern at work, and his intern gets caught in a trap in a local server of an on-line computer game. It’s quite a clever idea, using computer games as mechanisms for raising eldritch horrors, and this story has a nifty kicker which sends it in a completely different – yet still satisfying – direction at the end. Really, for what it is I liked it better than the novel.

Rounding out the volume is the afterward, “The Golden Age of Spying”, in which Stross examines the James Bond novels and films and their eccentricities, particularly how Bond was exactly not the sort of spy who could have thrived during the Cold War. The essay goes off the rails part-way through when Stross starts mixing his fictional world in with the essay, so it loses its interest there (although it’s still amusing), but the first half is quite insightful and informative.

A Little Trepidation

FP’s hosting service Dreamhost is going to be upgrading PHP to version 5 on Monday. PHP is the language which drives FP’s blogging software, WordPress, and the upshot is that I will need to upgrade FP this weekend to WordPress 2.1 or risk breakage.

I’m a little nervous about this, since it will be my first upgrade of WordPress since I launched the site. While I have customized a few things, none of it was very complicated and hopefully I can get it up and running again fairly quickly. My main worry is that if something somehow goes wrong with the interface to the MySQL database which stores all my content, then I may be screwed, because I am not very MySQL-savvy. But as long as that part isn’t affected by the upgrade, then I should be okay. (This is why I tend to avoid WP plugins which add new tables to the database, because that’s the only part of the package of which I’m not confident in my ability to support.)

Anyway. Hopefully there will be a short outage and/or strangeness sometime this weekend when I upgrade and spend some time restoring any little hacks I need to restore, and then things will be back to normal.

I just had the urge to vent my worry. I doubt any of my readers really need to know any of this.

(And yes, I will back everything up before I start!)

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 14 February 2007.

Okay, having tried it for a few weeks, I think I like my original format better:

  • 52 #41 of 52 (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #3 (DC)
  • Sandman Mystery Theatre: Sleep of Reason #3 of 5 (DC/Vertigo)
  • The Incredible Hulk #96-103 (Marvel)

That said, it was an undistinguished week. 52 and JSA both had pretty pedestrian issues. Sandman has its points of interest, but Eric Nguyen’s skechy artwork turns me off: Backgrounds are rare, peoples’ faces usually look strained or pained, characters are difficult to tell apart… I think the story would do much better with a more realistic art style.

I bought the rest of the “Planet Hulk” storyline to date (apparently it will run through #105). It occurred to me while reading these eight issues that the story is focusing mainly on the Hulk, and Bruce Banner hardly appears at all. It mainly concerns the influence that Hulk has on those around him, how they learn from his demeanor and aggressiveness, and how that doesn’t always apply in different situations. The Hulk is unique because he’s learned to care about no one but himself, and he has the power to back it up; those who are more caring, or weaker, can’t get away with the same attitude. But Hulk also realizes that he’s his own worst enemy, though he’s come to accept this somewhat.

In a way, this story takes the gray Hulk from early in Peter David’s run and makes him more aloof and dispassionate: He’s not stupid, and he understands many of the subtleties of what’s going on around him, but mostly he doesn’t care. In the high-pressure arena that he’s landed on, that makes for an entertaining ride. (Aaron Lopresti’s artwork is darned nice, too.)

Why FP Doesn’t Have a Full-Text Web Feed

J.D. Roth commented in a recent post that he’d like Fascination Place to have a full-text web feed. In principle, I’d like this too, but I have several problems with full feeds, and while none of them is compelling by itself, they add up to my decision to go with a partial feed. Here’s an edited version of the reasons which I sent to J.D. in e-mail:

  1. Loss of content. Some information doesn’t come through in a feed. For instance, an entry with a YouTube embedded video won’t show the video in the feed. This seems contrary to the promise of a “full feed”. At the least, the feed should include a placeholder for items it can’t render so that people can actually tell that there’s something missing.
  2. Loss of formatting. Feeds often don’t reflect the formatting, e.g. of embedded images or other typical CSS tricks, of the content they’re displaying. For instance, floating images of books I review end up showing up in odd places in a full feed, rather than floating to the right like they’re supposed to. I find this annoying as both a content provider and a content consumer; formatting does matter.
  3. Hit tracking. This is admittedly a completely selfish reason: I like to see who’s coming in and reading which entries, which is difficult to do if people are reading only the feed. (I know J.D. use Feedburner for this, but my experience as a consumer is that Feedburner goes down a lot, and/or has serious performance issues sometimes, so I see it as a mediocre solution at best. I’m also reluctant to use a third party for feeds.)
  4. LiveJournal syndication. LJ syndication is nifty in that it’s fairly well automated, but annoying in that there’s no way (that I know of) to subscribe to the comments on a syndication account. With full feeds, people can (and probably will) comment on my entries and I’ll probably never see them. Using summary feeds essentially sidesteps the issue.

    (Plus, of course, if I switch to a full feed, then the LJ syndication account for FP will get spammed with new copies of all the recent entries available in the feed. Although, that would be a one-time – if ugly – thing.)

Basically, I think that feeds are still a young technology, with issues yet to be worked out. They’re still tremendously useful, but still require some compromises to be made. So I’ve chosen the compromise that works best for me. (I could probably address some of these issues through coding of my own, but time rarely permits such efforts these days.)

If people know of simple solutions to some or all of these solutions, I would consider them.

(BTW, if you have no idea what I’m talking about here, you can read the Wikipedia entry on web feeds. Two good ways to subscribe to feeds on the Mac are to use Safari RSS on Tiger – which is what I use – or to download NetNewsWire Lite.)

My Past Life

It’s somewhat amusing that my career at a previous company (or a close analogue) made The Daily WTF: A Case of the MUMPS. (The comments are also interesting.)

For four and a half years I programmed in MUMPS and in Visual Basic. It was an odd combination. It paid well, though. The work was actually fairly interesting, but a lot of that was because I was both aggressive about being one of the guys to use new technologies when the opportunity presented itself, and because the industry the company served was itself interesting to learn about. (Of course, one might call that a backhanded compliment: at Apple there’s so much to learn and new things to try that if I were aggressively picking up everything that came down the pipe, I’d never have time to do any real work.)

But MUMPS also feels a lot like a shell scripting language: Objects are created on the fly, creating anonymous data structures (arrays of dictionaries and so forth) is so easy that it’s commonly done, the syntax is quirky but not so bad once you figure out a paradigm you’re comfortable with, etc. Perl, Python, and even Ruby (my favorite of the three) all have touches of these characteristics to some degree. (I’m not a big fan of Python, and when I first read about it, its line-indenting restrictions reminded me a lot of MUMPS’ peculiar code-block notation.)

Reading the WTF article, I do have to wonder whether I view those days through rose-colored glasses. If I were to go back to programming in MUMPS (or M as it’s often called these days), would I be able to put up with the low-tech editor, the limited file sizes, the syntactic restrictions, the lack of any object-oriented programming at all?

Well, probably not. Especially since I’ve drunk the Objective-C kool-aid.

(Sent to me by Mark.)

Presidential Candidates

It’s a little sad that the 2008 Presidential campaign is already kicking into gear – with the first primaries still a year away.

But, NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday had a surprisingly entertaining interview with former Senators Bob Kerrey (D-NE) and Alan Simpson (R-WY) about the race. In this interview, they voice opinions that perhaps the most likely candidates to win their parties’ nominations are:

This seems like a plausible list to me, although of course a lot can change in a year.

The interesting thing here is how many candidates are sitting or former Senators, especially among the Democrats. But in my lifetime, being a sitting Senator has been the kiss of death for a Presidential candidate. Look how far back we have to go to find a sitting Senator who was elected to the Presidency:

In that span, many Senators and former Senators have won their party’s nomination and then gone down to defeat:

So does this mean we can look forward to a President Giuliani or President Romney? Well…

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 7 February 2007.

  • 52 #40 of 52 (DC)

    The long-running Luthor/Steel/Infinity Inc. storyline apparently comes to a conclusion here. Oddly, it seems entirely disconnected from the rest of the series’ storylines, so either there’s something else going on, or not everything is connected. The latter would be kind of lame, I think.

  • Justice Society vol. 2 TPB (DC)

    The completion of the reprint of All-Star Comics from the 1970s. This was and still is one of my all-time favorite superhero series (starring the Justice Society of America). Although in some ways too blunt and not very sophisticated, this was the seminal series exploring relationships between multiple generations of heroes, and was one of the first series to consider that heroes will eventually retire. A lot of series in the decades since owe a lot to the ground this series covered. If it has a downside, it’s that Joe Staton’s pencils in this volume (following the Wally Wood-dominated first half) seems a little too cartoony and simplistic. It’s still a fun read, though.

  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book Two #2 of 4 (DC/Wildstorm)

    The halfway point in this lengthy series (which will consist of three 4-issue series), it’s running a little late. I’m starting to wonder where Kurt Busiek is going with this particular story; although it focuses on the pair of brothers – one a crook, one a cop – and their lives in the 1970s, there’s a lot more that I hope gets resolved here. I think it will end up being either very ambitious, or rather scattered. But based on the series’ track record in the past, I’ll hope for the former.

  • Fantastic Four: The End #5 of 6 (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hulk #92-95 (Marvel)

    I’ve heard good things about the “Planet Hulk” storyline which begins with these issues, so I decided to pick them up. (They’re about a year old now, so I have some catching up to do.) The Hulk is exiled by other heroes to a peaceful but uninhabited world, but something goes wrong and he lands on a barbaric world with a variety of creatures, and is captured and turned into a gladiator. But clearly as he regains the strength he lost from his journey, he’s going to become a player.

    It’s not a terribly subtle story, but writer Greg Pak keeps his eyes on the prize: The Hulk is entirely self-absorbed, doesn’t trust anyone, but isn’t (any longer) a fool, either. Which makes him a very dangerous contestant who’s not willing to play by anyones rules. (This also explains why the Hulk isn’t taking part in the Civil War “event”.)

    So this seems like a promising beginning to what they say will be a 14-issue story. I suspect it will have the usual disappointment in that eventually the Hulk will have to return to Earth and leave behind anything he’s gained on this other world. But that’s the downside to ongoing series.

  • Ms. Marvel #12 (Marvel)

    The first year of this series has been extremely haphazard, in large part because the Civil War disrupted it a great deal. Writer Brian Reed says in the letter column here that the second year will take the series in a different direction, as our heroine comes to grips with the less-than-ideal conclusions of some of her battles. I’d be happy if it just becomes a more cohesive series with more direction.

  • newuniversal #3 (Marvel)
  • Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink: Id. Ego. Superego! vol. 1 TPB (Dork Storm)

    This is a collection of the very funny superhero satire by John Kovalic (Dork Tower) and Christopher Jones. Kovalic leaves no turn unstoned among the mainstream heroes, with both obvious and subtle humor worked in. Jones’ artwork straddles the line between dynamic and cartoony, and although it’s not stellar, it has some fine moments. (It’s reminiscent of Michael Avon Oeming’s work on Powers, actually.) The book is dedicated by Bob Newhart and Kurt Busiek, and it certainly feels like a twisted reflection of Busiek’s Astro City.

    The collection features a mix of 2-pagers (or thereabouts) and a few long-form stories; the latter are by far the more successful, as the short gags get a little repetitive after a while. But it’s still a fun little package, and it’s in color, yet! I’ll certainly be on board for the second collection.