The Jennifer Morgue

I always say that any work that juxtaposes two radically different genres should aim to be an exemplar of both, as well as using that juxtaposition to tell us something about each of the genres that isn’t (as) available from a straight example. We could think about A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a near-perfect example of “mashing up” the genres of Romantic Comedy as it exists in Shakespeare’s other works and a fairly classic fairy tale. The devices that power the romantic elements are pretty similar to his other plays, such as Much Ado About Nothing, but the addition of the Fae Folk points out the absurdity of the situations, pointedly showing that you pretty much need supernatural intervention for the standard plot to work. Simultaneously, the arbitrary and capricious fair folk can be viewed as anthropomorphic projections of real human complexity. It renders literally emotional content that usually exists only figuratively. The “elevator pitch” for the Laundry series would be something like “MI5 meets Cthulhu via Dilbert”. Each of the novels uses a strong thriller structure and populates the antagonist echelon from Lovecraft and the protagonist echelon from Scott Adams. It’s a genre mash-up seen through at least a somewhat satiric prism.

My basic theory of satire is that an effective satire needs to mimic the genre forms of the genre being satirised. Yet, for it to be a satire, there must actually be a change or break with the original. This is a knife-edge act, where works cross back-and-forth between serious and satiric depending upon your mood and perspective. Straight readings of satires can often be very illuminating, as can satiric readings of straight drama. I particularly love the mini-satire of Romeo and Juliet that appears in the middle of Hot Fuzz. The text is unaltered, but its complete absurdity is demonstrated by the performance. Conversely, over time the satiric break in The Princess Bride has become too small to differentiate it from a straight rescue fantasy. One sometimes feels as if the neo-liberal agenda risks the same fate for “A Modest Proposal”.

Where this theory of satire becomes unhelpful is in the best pastiches, that knowingly walk along the knife-edge so that to make a decision to read satirically or not is to mis-read a deliberate ambiguity. If we’re looking for such a thing, this is where we might want to define the term “post-modern”, where knowing reference folds back upon itself, obliterating a linear system of semiotics: The Jennifer Morgue is and isn’t a satire of James Bond, and is and isn’t a satire of H.P. Lovecraft. Untangling The Jennifer Morgue thus needs us to define in broad strokes the key features of James Bond and H.P. Lovecraft. In one of these things I can fairly claim having sufficient knowledge, but the other will be both broad and potentially inaccurate. Clarifying comments are welcome.

James Bond is himself very nearly a parody of a real spy. He is the professionalised version of the boy’s own adventurer Richard Hannay from John Buchan’s novels. He is impossibly deadly and charming, eschewing even rudimentary trade-craft and devoting little to no time to the laborious activities of the real spy. His foes begin as merely his ideological opposites, but their “evil” quickly amplifies over the sequence of novels and films to the point where they are almost arbitrarily monstrous. Moral complexity or relativism has no place in these wish-fulfilment fantasies, and nor does a female with both sexual allure and longevity. It evades tripping over into outright comedy by sublimating the humour in wise-cracks, and papering over the fissures with style.

Satirising Bond is most easily done by amplifying these traits. Austin Powers does everything Bond does, with worse teeth. The amplifications help us recognise the inherent implausibility of Bond et al, which is a key function of satire. While watching Austin Powers, we are laughing at Bond as much as anything else. Re-watching Bond after an evening with Powers, it’s a little harder to keep a straight face at yet another plan for world domination that sounds like it was culled from the day-dreams of a 13 year old boy no matter how plausible the whole thing seemed the first time out.

Bob, of the Laundry, is no James Bond. He’s not even an Austin Powers. Where they exude sexual magnetism and indomitable confidence. They both literally laugh in the face of death – Austin’s laugh of course makes us realise that Bond’s laugh is a complete fantasy. Bob, in contrast, is fairly pathetic. Until you recognise that what he lacks in physical prowess, he replaces with technical wizardry – literally. Bob actually is the kind of badass that Bond is, but he wins his conflicts through mental rather than physical means. Trapped by the villain with no chance of escape, Bond overpowers his guards or seduces the maid. Bob hacks into the operating system of a smart TV. The effect is the same, identifcal, only the method varies. Moreover, while a stylistic function of Bond-style stories is the improbability of his physical mastery, Charles Stross explains in excruciating detail just how logical and probable Bob’s escape is. It is fulfilling my structural requirements of a satire, by using the form of the original while pointing out how silly that original is.

In a way, it un-breaks what was itself verging on the satiric – it could be described as an anti-satire… until you recognise that at heart, the novel remains comic in tone. We are not supposed to find Bob or the Laundry ridiculous in the same way as we find Austin Powers hilarious, but I don’t think we are supposed to engage with the fiction as anything genuinely challenging, we are supposed to use genre conventions, we are supposed to laugh at the absurdity of the situations and the juxtapositions created by its genre interpretation. If Bob is arguably les ridiculous than Bond, he is nevertheless considerably moreso than Deighton’s Samson or le Carre’s Smiley.

We are left, I think, reading the structure against the surface in lots of places. The attention to detail and realism that derives from Deighton or Forsyth can most easily be interpreted as a serious speculative effort, while the structure is satiric. It deliberately and ambiguously balances between satire and non-satire.

This balancing act is also reflected in the Lovecraftian axis of the work. The key motif of the Lovecraft tale is the danger of knowing too much. His protagonists consistently begin with a zest for knowledge, but end their lives arguing vehemently that any who would follow in their tracks are foolish. They have seen things that man was meant to know, and all his narrators express an extreme reluctance to share what they know – sharing, in fact, only to prevent others from following in their footsteps. Lovecraft’s horror is a deeply existential one, where mankind recoils from his own insigifnicance and the ephemeral and irrelevant nature of the science on which his existence is based.

In the Laundry books, however, the Great Old Ones aren’t n-dimensional beings beyond man’s comprehension so much as foreign powers with orthogonal drives and methods. The deep and mysterious remainder of ancient races are not unspeakable so much as code-named. The dark places in the world are now located inside a system of world knowledge, arbitrated by the “Third Benthic Treaty”. Not only do we know what lurks in the shadows, but it’s agreed not to come out our collective closet if we play nicely with it.

For me, nothing could point at the obvious weakness in the Lovecraft mythos more precisely. His protagonists are terrified and appalled in direct proportion to their faith in the scientific establishment. The narrator of The Mountains of Madness is nearly driven mad by the conflict between his belief in man’s ascendancy from the Apes and his primacy as the first intelligent life on the planet. Once he finds facts that contradict his theory of evolution, he sacrifices his mind rather than alter his way of thinking – for the ignorant athiest, the Old Ones which so perturb the professor have less significance than the missing link. This completely sensible, logical, sane and bureaucratic inclusion of pre-human life into a system of international diplomacy is the resoundingly pragmatic response that proves beyond dispute how tenuous the horror is in Lovecraft.

And yet… the beings so included are still absolutely terrifying. Whatever the rational method adopted for handling them, they are beyond man’s knowledge or power in a profound way. Baudrillard would definitely categorise the blithe inclusion of such beings in a system of international diplomacy as a failure to recognise reality in a profound way: his dreaded hyper-reality. Once again, we have a satiric interpretation of an original that nonetheless retains aspects of the original in a deliberately ambiguous way.

The narration makes it clear that Stross is entirely conscious of this effect and in deliberate control of its extent and implimentation. I think that lends these works a creative legitimacy. For me the novel breaks down where it tries to skip the implications that it has worked so hard to establish. Specifically, at the last second, it is revealed that Bob is not actually Bond, but the damsel to be rescued by the real Bond. This is intended as a clever twist, but for me it totally failed to make the case that the “real” Bond had any claim to legitimacy at all, let alone more than the intricate and extensive correlations consciously created and highlighted by the bulk of the story. I respect the idea, but actually less than if the story had just seen through what already seemed to me to be an impressive adaptation of its twin genre sources. At the final hurdle, I think it failed to draw together its strands, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Your mileage may vary, of course.

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