At the current state of science fiction’s evolution, the grab bag of familiar science fiction tropes is as large as it ever has been. This paves the way for one type of ‘originality’: test the limits by combining as many as you can. Published in 2004, Charles Stross’ novella The Concrete Jungle is a posterizable example. Anything (familiar) goes in its roughly 100 pages: zombies, alternate history, androids, Greek myth, 21st century corporate life, threats of alien invasion, Big Brother conspiracies, the occult, emotion detectors, invisibility shields, and all not to mention humor involving lesbian sheep and jokes having “don’t have a cow” as the punchline. Whether this is too much for 100 pages will depend on what expectations the reader brings to the table.
Bob Howard is a mild mannered, unassuming agent for the Laundry Arcana Analysis Section of British Intelligence. Woken in the dead of the night, he is called to the office on a code blue alert and given a folder of top secret files to review en route to a site the Section wants answers regarding. The files detailing a century’s research into gorgonism, i.e. the ability to burn to cinders anything carbon-based with the power of sight, Howard prepares himself with heat goggles approaching the scene. The charred corpse of a domestic animal lying in the middle of a traffic circle, where the investigation leads is only more bizarre.
A competent male spy/detective sterotype played off on a James Bond-esque plot, The Concrete Jungle is not serious literature. Stross satirizing bureaucracy in overt style, maintaining a kitchen sink philosophy in admitting story elements, and switching writing styles as the mood suits, the novella is a splash of entertainment with precious little of consequence. The afore-mentioned motifs of the genre are thrown together in a techy thriller that doesn’t stop from the word go. If anything, it is a wild ride.
The Concrete Jungle is troubled from the start, perhaps without knowing it. The title having no meaning upon completion, the material between is likewise thin. Pseudo-science awash with vernacular that sounds appropriately techy, backhanded commentary on Britain’s response to 9-11, and a writing mode that: is epistolary (included within is mimetic dialogue), occasional direct address to the reader, standard first person narrative, and digressive commentary. All this would be acceptable were these elements to have been utilized to serve a purpose. But in this case, all is for shits and giggles.
In the end, The Concrete Jungle will be appealing to fans of the genre who ask no questions of the story’s ideas and are willing to sacrifice coherence for an all out romp in sci-fi spy land. Stross frothing with ideas that barely have a chance to coagulate before the next (highly unconnected) idea spills out, those who love techno-spasticity, the novella is for you. For those who prefer a more thought out story with elements that actually work in conjunction toward an idea with at least one layer of sub-text, you won’t be missing anything skipping this. Stross all over the map stylewise, only occasionally humorous in satirizing corporate and government life (“Is that a gun in your hand or are you just here to have a wank?” is an actual quote), and the main mode gushing without afterthought, the story is not to be taken seriously. But whether bouncing to nearly all points of the sci-fi/fantasy compass is a positive thing will be up to the reader.