Thursday, December 10, 2009

Charles Stross: On Her Majesty's Occult Service

In 2001, as an acquiring editor for Golden Gryphon Press, I proposed an idea to the publisher: a new line of signed and numbered, limited edition chapbooks. To which, after much discussion, the publisher agreed. I had already been in contact with Alastair Reynolds regarding a short fiction collection (which I ended up editing years later for Night Shade Books; see my lengthy blog post on the Reynolds collection) -- so I asked Al if he would like to submit a novella to launch our new limited edition chapbook series. And, much to my joy, Al agreed. He currently had other commitments, but he said he could begin work on a new novella shortly after the new year (2002). The end result was Turquoise Days which premiered at ConJosé, the 60th World Science Fiction Convention. (I would like to share with you in detail how I met with Al in the lobby of his hotel in San Jose, California, the day before the start of the convention, after which I trucked up boxes of Turquoise Days to his hotel room, where we chatted at length as he signed 500-plus copies of the book. But I won't because this blog post, really, is about Charles Stross and his "Laundry Files.")

Around mid-2002, while Al and I were finalizing the edits and such on his novella, I began seeking out an author for the next title in this chapbook series. Howard Waldrop had already committed to writing a chapbook story -- what became A Better World's in Birth!-- and for those of you who know Howard, you'll understand when I say that it took a year for his story to be completed and published. So, in the interim, I was looking for another author and story. (I wasn't successful, but not for lack of trying; the Waldrop novelette was actually the second published chapbook in the series.)

One of the first authors who came to mind was Charles Stross. I had read quite a few of his stories, particularly "A Colder War" (Spectrum SF #3, August 2000; available online in its entirely on infinity plus1), and I was hearing a great deal of buzz regarding his forthcoming novel, Singularity Sky2, due from Ace Books in 2003. So, I emailed Charlie on August 2, 2002. In addition to introducing myself and Golden Gryphon Press, I promoted the new limited edition chapbook series and asked if he would consider submitting a story. I was aware that Charlie was scheduled to attend ConJosé, so I invited him to drop by the Golden Gryphon booth in the dealers room so that we could actually meet and chat a bit.

Charlie sent a reply that very same day:

"Firstly, I'm up to my eyeballs in work right now. I'm writing a series for Asimov's SF which will turn into a fix-up novel [Accelerando, Ace 2005], I'm working on book #2 of a contract for Ace [Iron Sunrise, 2004], and my agent is hoping to sell a tetralogy [Merchant Princes series] -- only one book of which is written so far! -- in the next couple of months. (Meaning, yet another big fat novel to write.) Therefore I almost certainly won't have time to write an original novella for you before March of next year.... However, if you're willing to settle for slightly-less-than-100%-original.... There's a second possibility, but this one is slightly offbeat. You may have seen my short novel "The Atrocity Archive", which Paul Fraser is currently serialising in Spectrum SF. It's 76,000 words long; he's running it in issues #7 through #9. Book rights to this short novel have not been sold; my agent is focusing on my SF work... [this is] a borderline horror/SF/thriller crossover... If you'd like to look at it I'd be happy to send you a copy and if necessary get [my agent] Caitlin Blasdell to talk to you about rights.... let's meet up and chat about things at ConJose."

It just so happened that I already had issues #1 through #8 of Spectrum SF, but issue #9, containing part three of "The Atrocity Archive," hadn't been published as yet. So, Charlie graciously sent me a file version of the complete novel for my reading pleasure. But what intrigued me even more so about "The Atrocity Archive" -- enough to request the full novel file from Charlie (remember, I hadn't yet read the final part 3) -- was Nick Gevers's review in the August 2002 issue of Locus Magazine. Nick concluded his review with the following paragraph:

"The climactic scenes of The Atrocity Archive -- battles in the snow beneath a galaxy of dying red suns -- form one of the most compelling and intellectually engaging narrative sequences in the SF canon, the logics of demonology and physics in astonishing tandem. Sequels are possible; they surely must come; but for the time being, the priority should simply be to see The Atrocity Archive published in proper book form after the limited availability of its serialization in Spectrum SF."

After reading that first sentence, re: "one of the most compelling and intellectually engaging narrative sequences in the SF canon," there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to be the one to acquire and publish this novel. However, I typically acquired books that were between 90,000 and 120,000 words, and Charlie had told me that "TAA" clocked in at about 76K words. So on August 19 [I know, I'm getting way ahead of myself, as this is after the WorldCon] I emailed Charlie and asked if he would be agreeable to writing an afterword -- I was thinking in terms of a two- or three-page afterword on the genesis of the novel; I also asked Charlie if he could recommend a fellow author to pen an introduction to the book. Charlie suggested Ken MacLeod for the introduction, and he also responded that "An afterword is possible." Fortunately, Ken agreed to contribute an introduction, and Charlie did indeed write an afterword -- a 5,550-word afterword entitled "Inside the Fear Factory," in which he made a case for the thriller novel as horror; he also wrote about British author Len Deighton, famous for his spy thrillers (e.g. The Ipcress File), and the influence behind the writing of "The Atrocity Archive."

But one thing still concerned me: in addition to an introduction and afterword, I felt the book still needed some new fiction; I told Charlie that I believed his hardcore fanbase/readers would have already obtained the three issues of Spectrum SF that contained the serialized "TAA." I wanted to be able to offer these folks something more than just the fine quality of a Golden Gryphon Press hardcover: preferably some new fiction. In his email response on August 19, Charlie made the following suggestion:

"Alternatively, can I interest you in a stand-alone novella about Bob, set not too long after the events of 'The Atrocity Archive'? I was going to write it for Spectrum SF, and would still like a chance to throw it at Paul, but if you insist on some 100% original content my arm can be twisted.3

Background: ...the novella, 'The Concrete Jungle', is a separate part of the story: it falls naturally between novels #1 and #2. It's about basilisks, the mystical significance of the Milton Keynes bicycle path network, Bob's evil scheming line manager, and what the British government is really spending money on in place of ballistic missile defense. 'The Concrete Jungle' is about 25% written, with a design length of 25,000 words, and was basically waiting for me to have an excuse -- and time -- to finish it."

Okay, before I go any further, for those of you not familiar with Charles Stross's Laundry Files, I guess a bit of an introduction is in order. From the dust jacket copy I wrote for The Atrocity Archives (note the plural from of "archives"; more about this in a bit), which was published in 2004:

In the world of "The Atrocity Archive," Alan Turing, the Father of Modern Computer Science, did in fact complete his theorem on "Phase Conjugate Grammars for Extra-dimensional Summoning." Turing's work paved the way for esoteric mathematical computations that, when carried out, had side effects that would leak through the platonic realm of pure mathematics underlying the structure of the Cosmos. Out there in the multiverse there were "listeners" -- and sometimes these listeners could be coerced into opening gates. Small gates through which minds could be transferred and, occasionally, large gates through which objects could be moved.

In 1945, Nazi Germany's Ahnenerbe-SS, in an attempt to escape the Allied onslaught, performed just such a summoning on the souls of more than six million. They opened a gate to an alternate universe through which the SS could move men and matériel. But their summoning brought forth more than the SS had bargained for -- an Evil, patiently waiting for countless eons, now poised to lunch on our galaxy, on our very own Earth.

The protagonist in these novels and stories is Bob Howard (not his real name; and I'll leave you to determine the origin of this alias) -- a geekish demonology hacker extraordinaire -- who works for a supersecret intelligence organization known as "the Laundry," formerly the Q Department in Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE). Whereas the SOE was officially disbanded in 1945, following World War II, the Laundry was secretly maintained and exists to this day. When Bob's not trying to save the world from unearthly horrors, he has time sheets to complete and field liaison meetings to attend. The Laundry Files are a unique mix of the British espionage thriller, Lovecraftian horrors, non-Euclidian mathematics, computer hackerdom, and Dilbert-style office management.

Now where was I... Oh, yes, the 2002 WorldCon: Unfortunately, Charlie and I didn't have a chance to actually chat at ConJosé. He did drop by the tables in the dealers room, but his schedule was so hectic that we only had enough time to introduce ourselves -- but we did promise to continue talking via email about publishing "The Atrocity Archive" in book form.

As evidenced by our email communications of August 19, we did continue talking about the book. Charlie proposed including "The Concrete Jungle," and I jumped on the opportunity. On September 19, a month later, he emailed:

"Just to let you know, I've been working full time on it, and draft 1.0 of THE CONCRETE JUNGLE weighs in at 28,500 words. I'm going to workshop it with my usual conspirators, and give it at least one (if not two) going's-over before I send it to you -- but it should be no later than the middle of next month."

We included "The Concrete Jungle" with "The Atrocity Archive" -- along with Ken MacLeod's introduction and "Inside the Fear Factory" afterword -- in a trade hardcover entitled The Atrocity Archives (plural). The book sold out its first printing of 3,000 copies within a couple or so months, and went back to press for a second printing -- all of which are now sold out from the publisher. "The Concrete Jungle" was nominated for a 2005 Hugo Award for best novella, so Charlie graciously made the story available for free via a Creative Commons license in both PDF and HTML formats. The story is still available online courtesy of Golden Gryphon Press.

Interaction, the 2005 WorldCon, was held in Glasgow, Scotland, August 4-8, so when "The Concrete Jungle" won the Hugo Award for best novella, Charlie -- who lives in Edinburgh -- didn't have very far to travel to accept his award.

And that brings me to the second book in the Laundry Files series, The Jennifer Morgue. I'm not going to say much (well, not too much!) about this book -- not because the book doesn't warrant it, but rather because I've been too long-winded already. Here's a bit from Charlie's brief elevator pitch for the book: "Think Thunderball meets The Spy Who Loved Me meets Slashdot by way of Doctor Who and The Sea Devils" -- and: "sort of like Austin Powers, only more squamous and rugose."4 And from the book's dust jacket copy:

In 1975, the CIA made an ill-fated attempt to raise a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. At least, "ill-fated" was the information leaked to the press. In reality, the team salvaged a device, codenamed "Gravedust," that permitted communication with the dead. Enter Ellis Billington, glamorous software billionaire, who has acquired Gravedust by devious means. Billington plans to raise an eldritch horror, codenamed "Jennifer Morgue," from the vasty deeps, for the purpose of ruling the world. Worse still, he's prepared occult defenses that can only be penetrated by one agent walking a perilous path.

The Jennifer Morgue was published in 2006 in a 4,000-copy first printing; it sold out faster than TAA, if I recall correctly, and went back to press for a second printing. The hardcover edition is still available from the publisher. Also, both TAA and TJM are now available from Ace Books in less expensive trade paperback editions.

Which, finally, brings me to Ace Books, and this is where I was headed from the very beginning. I'm just speculating here, but I suspect that after the success of novels Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise, and The Family Trade (Tor Books, 2004), Charlie could have easily sold The Jennifer Morgue to a New York publisher, and undoubtedly for far more than he received from Golden Gryphon. But he recognized the fact that the Laundry had its beginnings in the small press (both Spectrum SF and Golden Gryphon), and the gracious gentleman that is Charles Stross allowed me to acquire and edit this second book in the Laundry Files series. But I'm also a pragmatist and I knew that the next volume in the series would be going to one of Charlie's NY publishers, and in fact, I was correct in that belief. The Fuller Memorandum was purchased by Ace Books as part of a three-book deal, for publication in 2010. But Charlie, bless his heart, doesn't forget his roots... When he informed me of the book deal, he promised that he would recommend me to his editor at Ace. In his email of October 16, 2008, Charlie wrote: "I'll pitch for you, but I can make no promises -- it's up to [acquiring editor] Ginjer Buchanan, not me (but [I will] point out that you edited the first two in the series...)."

Nearly a year passed from the time The Fuller Memorandum was acquired until it entered the production cycle at Ace Books; Charlie, true to his word, recommended me to his publisher. On October 26, 2009, I received an email from Michelle Kasper, production editor for Ace/Berkley Books. WØØt! I had gotten the job!

Michelle kindly provided me with a hardcopy printout of the manuscript (I only edit on hardcopy), and she answered all of my process questions by the next business day (often the same day). I worked through the 300-plus-page manuscript twice, reviewing all of my edits twice, and bugging Charlie personally, via email, with a couple dozen or so questions. I used "change tracking" to enter my edits and comments directly into the manuscript; I then reviewed all of the comments a second time for clarity. I completed the project this past Friday, December 4, at which time I emailed the file to Ms. Kasper at Ace Books. I informed her that I am available should she have any questions whatsoever regarding my work. And, I'm looking forward to the publication of The Fuller Memorandum next July.

Now that I've had a peek, as it were -- a very long, lengthy peak -- at The Fuller Memorandum, the new Laundry Files novel, you're probably wondering: What's the story about? Ace -- and Charlie Stross -- didn't go so far as to ask me to sign a nondisclosure agreement, but with all due respect to the publisher, here's a little blurb I can share with you courtesy of the author himself:

Newly married and looking for a quiet life, Bob Howard thinks that a period of time working in the Laundry's secret archives and catching up on the filing is just the ticket. But when his boss Angleton falls under suspicion when a top secret dossier goes missing, Bob is determined to get to the bottom of a historical puzzle: What was in the missing Fuller memorandum, and why are all the people who know dying...?

Notes and Footnotes:

First, my special thanks to author Charles Stross, for his permission to quote extensively from our past email communications. Had he not written the Laundry Files, my work as an editor would have been far less rewarding. I continue to learn stuff working on his stories -- about history and hackerdom and popular culture. I thank him too for his faith in me and my skills, and his willingness to recommend me to Ace Books.

The Laundry insignia shown toward the top of this blog is reprinted here courtesy of Feòrag NicBhrìde; the insignia first appeared in the hardcover edition of The Jennifer Morgue.

I also wanted to acknowledge Steve Montiglio, whose original wraparound art graces the hardcover editions of both The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue. After eight years (1999-2007) with Golden Gryphon Press, I can state without hesitation that the cover for TJM remains one of my absolute favorites. Steve nailed both the tone and the content of the book with that art piece -- not that he doesn't with every piece that he creates, but this one was especially so! Steve is also a great guy to work with.

And lastly, I wanted to thank Ace Books, Executive Editor Ginjer Buchanan, and Production Editor Michelle Kasper for also having faith and giving me the opportunity to work on The Fuller Memorandum. I hope I done good! (If not, I'm sure they will let me know!)

1infinity plus, alas, is no longer an active site; it appears to have been last updated in 2007. Keith Brooke, along with Nick Gevers and Paul Barnett, were huge supporters of the genre over the years with infinity plus, showcasing books (with reviews and excerpts) and authors (with interviews and critical essays). The web can be so ephemeral; readers would be wise to check out infinity plus while its 1,000 reviews and 100 interviews -- more than 2 million words -- are still accessible.

2Singularity Sky was Charles Stross's first novel published in book form, but The Atrocity Archive (singular), serialized in Spectrum SF -- #7, November 2001, through #9, November 2002 -- was indeed his first published novel.

3 Speaking of Spectrum SF: Charlie wouldn't have had an opportunity to pitch "The Concrete Jungle" to Paul Fraser regardless, because issue #9 was the periodical's final issue -- unbeknownst to us at the time. An issue #10 was promised, for a couple years in fact, but was never published. I had been buying each individual issue of Spectrum SF, as they were published, from Andromeda Bookshop in the UK. But after acquiring Charlie's novel for publication, I decided to support the magazine directly by subscribing; I can't recall if my sub began with issue #9 or #10. Regardless, the subscription went unfulfilled and nothing was refunded. Reminds me of the relaunch of Argosy magazine. Only three issues appeared before the periodical disappeared -- but not before there was a lot of talk from publisher James A. Owens about guest editors and such so that the magazine could continue publication. (He even contacted me about my participation as one of those guest editors.) Bottom line, I didn't receive a single issue of my subscription and nothing was refunded. And there were other fallen magazines to which I subscribed over the years as well, but these two are the most memorable. So, note to publishers of new, or fairly new, zines: All these dead subscriptions leaves readers a bit gun-shy when it comes to subscribing to yet another new magazine, though we may purchase each issue individually as they are published.

4 The Laundry Files novels are each being written in the style of a well-known British thriller writer. I mentioned that Charlie wrote about author Len Deighton in "Inside the Fear Factory"; this is because The Atrocity Archive was written in Deighton's style. Charlie's elevator pitch for The Jennifer Morgue referred to two James Bond movies, Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me, because TJM was written in the style of Ian Fleming. [My name is Howard. Bob Howard.] And lastly, The Fuller Memorandum has been written in the style of author Anthony Price; I'm not familiar with Price's work, but I plan to rectify this shortly. As to other books in the Laundry Files series? Only Charlie knows what's coming next and in whose style they will be written (but he has hinted to me about an event that is planned for volume 5).

One final end note: The title of this blog post -- "On Her Majesty's Occult Service" -- is from the title of the Science Fiction Book Club's omnibus edition of TAA and TJM. And by the way, the cover art is by the inestimable John Picacio.

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  1. Thanks, Marty. We had a ten year run with infinity plus, but in the end I just had to get my life back! The site will remain online for the foreseeable future.

  2. My thanks for the part(s) you've played in getting the Laundry novels into print, Marty! Those are my absolute favorite of Stross's books, and some of my favorite novels of recent years.

  3. Hi Marty,

    Many thanks for this fascinating behind-the-scenes reminiscence. I absolutely adored Golden Gryphon's chapbooks. They even prompted me to write my first fan letter to a publisher, and, if I remember right, I called the series 'affordable excellence'. I have all four and I was very sad to see that line canceled.

    Speaking of treasured items in my collection, I was fortunate to get on the Laundry bandwagon early enough to get a first edition of 'The Atrocity Archives', which Charlie was kind enough to sign for me during a rollicking evening at the C'est What? brewpub in Toronto (I gave him an example of a Canadian Whiskey to peruse and he autographed my Stross collection - as they say, A Mutually Beneficial Trade. As a bonus, I got to meet the lovely Feorag NicBhride, with Cthulhu in tow!). Bob Howard is easily one of my favourite characters in contemporary fiction so to say that I'm anxiously waiting for 'The Fuller Memorandum' is a slight understatement!

    Here's hoping Charlie's secretly hard at work on the next installment and all the best,

    Jonathan K. Stephens

  4. Hey, Keith, it's been a while... Good to hear from you. infinity plus was especially supportive of Golden Gryphon Press, its books and authors; your efforts, and those of Nick and Paul as well, were always much appreciated. The least I can do is give you guys some kudos whenever the opportunity arises.

    Cheers, and all best wishes,
    - marty

  5. Hi, Chris,

    It was good seeing you and Allison again (finally!) at the World Fantasy Con here in San Jose. Thanks for your comment regarding Stross's Laundry books. As I mentioned, Charlie hinted to me about an event "penciled in" for book #5 -- so that's at least two more titles in the series.

    - marty

  6. Hi, Jonathan,

    Thanks for your kind words regarding the chapbooks. I too would have liked to see the series continue (I had other authors who had expressed interest; Mike Resnick immediately comes to mind) but, alas, it was the publisher's decision to end the series with the fourth title: Mere by Robert Reed.

    And a great story, too, about meeting up with Charlie Stross. A Canadian whiskey for a few autographs sounds like a fair trade to me!

    Thanks again for your support of the chapbook series.
    - marty

  7. Anthony Price? I assumed from the title that "The Fuller Memorandum" would be in the style of Adam Hall. Must go read Price, I guess.

  8. Remember my comment above that I was unfamiliar with the work of Anthony Price? Well, you may not believe this, but on November 18 I emailed Charlie and asked him if the author whose style the novel was written in was Elleston Trevor (aka Adam Hall). I too thought the similarity in titles, i.e. The Fuller Memorandum and The Quiller Memorandum was the clue. Obviously not.

    So, what other author possibilities are there for future books? John le Carré? Stephen Coulter/James Mayo? Desmond Skirrow? James Mitchell? Michael Gilbert? Others?

    Charlie, are you out there? Care to weigh in?

    - marty

  9. I really have to stop visiting this site - It's costing way too much money buying all of the books...

    Again, a big thank you for throwing new authors my way on a regular basis.

  10. Hi, Brian,

    I appreciate the "thank you"; I only wish my blog posts were indeed more regular.

    I'm always glad to hear that my enthusiasm for an author and that author's writing translates into book sales.

    Keep reading!
    - marty

  11. Congrats on finishing, Marty! Looking forward to reading this one.
    -J. Daniel Sawyer

  12. Hi, Dan,

    Thanks for your comment...

    (and I'm thinking, Hmmm... I wonder if Dan posted here just to subtly remind me that I still have his manuscript in hand, which, I have to admit, I still haven't begun to read yet. Of course, that's because there's another ms. ahead of his to read, which he knows about as well... Naw, he's just posting here because he honestly wanted to express his interest in the Stross book.)

    Always good to hear from you, Dan; and keep in touch, too.
    - marty