The Delirium Brief
Charles Stross
Orbit, 435 pages
Review by Duncan Lunan

The press release for this novel begins “James Bond meets H.P. Lovecraft in the latest occult thriller from Hugo Award winner Charles Stross, in a series where British spies take on the supernatural”. The Bond reference is apt because it’s sometimes alleged that the 00-numbers go back to Elizabethan times, possibly to Francis Walsingham’s agents, signifying either ‘the eyes of the Queen’ or ‘For Your Eyes Only’ in coded messages to her. And the real-life connections of Ian Fleming and his brother Peter to the wartime Special Operations Executive are well known, although neither was directly involved in it.

In this novel and its predecessors, the SOE, aka ‘The Laundry’, genuinely goes back to Elizabethan times (probably involving John Dee, though not mentioned here) and has been kept secret since, because its principal brief has been to protect Britain from harmful supernatural forces. Its cover has been blown by a major incursion of elves which has been contained, but involved severe damage and loss of life in south Yorkshire. A government looking for scapegoats and hell-bent (as it were) on privatisation, particulary handing over national assets to US corporations, has swept the SOE aside with no idea of the multiple problems that will unleash, and still less awareness that the outwardly Christian US organisation, so keen to take over, is actually a front for trans-dimensional beings with similarities to things in H.P. Lovecraft, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, and various invasive nasties from Dr. Who and Babylon 5. In our world, the parallels with Brexit and TTIP are too obvious to need emphasis.

Recently I reviewed Into the Guns by William S. Dietz for the Shoreline of Infinity website, drawing a comparison with Nevil Shute’s In the Wet and suggesting that the British Armed Forces’ oath of loyalty to the Queen might prevent fragmentation in crisis, like the US military one which Dietz portrays. The comparison is appropriate here too, because the executives and operatives of the Laundry are similarly motivated – though it seems to be an abstract loyalty to ‘the Crown’, whose precise definition is debated, rather than to the sovereign in person. There are some intriguing references to a little-known Act of Parliament giving the heir to the throne authority to use nuclear weapons – something which the Laundry has been careful to keep secret from the current holder of the title. I did wonder if it would provide a Final Solution for surviving units of the Yorkshire invasion, only temporarily held in check, but if Stross has that in mind it must be for a later book.

There’s also a parallel with the mediaeval organisation of the Knights Templar, with the Masters corresponding to the SOE executives and the Knights to the secret agents. The Templar Knights and Masters were comparatively few in number, and were supported by a much larger force of sergeants and other staff who ran the vast network of farms, ships, etc, needed to maintain the force in the Holy Land. Similarly the Laundry’s operations in the UK and beyond are staffed by a great many workers who are simply given their P.45s and told to report to the DSS in the morning. We don’t see much of the resulting chaos, but what we do see is that lack if manpower forces the upper echelons of the Laundry to make deals with people and powers whom they’ve hitherto imprisoned or suppressed. In fighting the greater evil, former enemies have to become friends or at least uneasy allies. I was reminded of Churchill’s comment, on reversing his attitude to Stalin when Hitler invaded Russia: “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” (I first heard it as ‘to His Satanic Majesty’, which seems even better.) Still, up till then I was mentally congratulating Stross on making the novel accessible to a new reader of the series. The stand-alone aspect was seriously weakened in the later sections as more and more people and beings from previous novels were released from captivity to join the conflict; and some parts of the victory seemed to come too easily, relying too much on thriller and fantasy tropes – e.g. that a trained operative, or a novice, has only to slip into a waitress costume to become invisible and penetrate the household of a security-conscious enemy.

Anyway, we are left at the end with a fox in charge of the henhouse on this side of the Atlantic, and the alien takeover unopposed on the other. As R.M. Freeman wrote at the outbreak of World War 2, when his Saml. Pepys and the Minxes column was axed by The Listener: “What will come of it all, God knows.” But no doubt Charles Stross will be back to tell us, and we have that to look forward to.