After years as a lowly technical support officer, Bob Howard is newly-qualified as a field operative at The Laundry, "that branch of the British secret state tasked with defending the realm from the scum of the multiverse, using the tools of applied computational demonology". He's been sent to investigate "something odd" which is going on at the Funny Farm, aka St Hilda of Grantham’s Home For Disgruntled Waifs And Strays, aka the place where Laundry employees who couldn't take the heat any more end up. In their incarceration, the asylum's patients remain a dangerous bunch:
The thing is, magic is a branch of applied mathematics, and the inmates here are not only mad: they’re computer science graduates. That’s why they came to the attention of the Laundry in the first place, and it’s also why they ultimately ended up in the Farm, where we can keep them away from sharp pointy things and diagrams with the wrong sort of angles. But it’s difficult to make sure they’re safe. You can solve theorems with a blackboard if you have to, after all, or in your head, if you dare. Green crayon on the walls of a padded cell takes on a whole different level of menace in the Funny Farm: in fact, many of the inmates aren’t allowed writing implements, and blank paper is carefully controlled — never mind electronic devices of any kind.I'd love to tell you about Matron and the Sisters, but it would be spoiling the pleasure of the story for you. But you can read "Down on the Farm" for yourself on the Tor website - if you enjoy it, you'll find the first of Bob's adventures in The Atrocity Archive, which comes bound with novella The Concrete Jungle, and which pretty much follows on from it. If you're allergic to techspeak and computer nerd jokes they may not be for you, so this story is an excellent way to see if you'll like it. Yes, there are some jokes/references in the story you won't get if you haven't read the books, but it stands on its own as an introduction both to Stross's sense of humour and an approach to story-telling which stands somewhere between Len Deighton and H.P. Lovecraft (both influences the author acknowledges). The writing style is very much the former, though I think Bob is a little more appealing that the narrator of The Ipcress Files (but that may be just me); the monsters are definitely from the latter. Stross is clearly a Neal Stephenson fan too, but then, what computer geek isn't?
In a postscript to The Atrocity Archives (plural for the book, singular for the novel - still with me?) Stross has some interesting things to say about spy fiction, inspired by the Cold War, and horror fiction, which took off rather earlier, and the possible role of the computer nerd in both as a trickster character. The Laundry Files themselves date back to the very end of the last century (talk of palmtop computers may make you snigger) placing them at the beginning of a wave of urban fantasy that's become very fashionable (think Ben Aaronovitch, for instance), and I like them, and this story, for their slightly clunky feel, and their glorious ragbag of technology. There's something very British about them.
Read for R.I.P.VII.