Review: The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Bob Howard is back and added to his normal foes (modern management practices, office politics, the org-chart, work-life balance, Lovecraftian horrors trying to eat your brain) is the prospect of privatisation of public services. Of course, many public servants in post-GFC Britain have faced the prospect of having their jobs replaced by private contractors in the name of efficiency (though oddly often at higher costs) but unlike Bob, the move doesn’t usually threaten the very fabric of reality.

Since The Rhesus Chart, Stross has taken a different approach to the Laundry novels. Where the earlier ones four novels pastiched specific spy/espionage novels, the more recent three let the Laundry premise stand on its own strengths but had it intersect with tropes from other fantasy genres (specifically vampires, superheroes and elves). In addition, Stross has introduced other key characters and let people other than Bob take centre stage (in particular Mo, fellow agent, Bob’s wife and owner of a demonic violin).

With The Delirium Brief, the series shifts another gear. Where the events of one novel had a light touch on the next one in the previous stories, The Delirium Brief requires more familiarity with the series as a whole. In particular events and characters from The Fuller Memorandum and The Apocalypse Codex play a major role in the story. Bob returns as the main narrator but the assembled cast from the more recent novels play bigger roles as co-protagonists. This is The Avengers movie of the Laundry novels but with more genital parasites from another dimension – an ensemble cast doing spy-stuff against a cosmic threat.

Aside from these structural changes, the book is what you expect from a Laundry novel. Left-leaning, snarky, IT/office-work jokes, Stross’s genuine love of spy-craft, cosmic horror played as international intrigue and some big set-piece action sequences. While the past three novels were good, the tone of the narration works much better with Bob. However, having a broader base of familiar characters gives the story a bit more emotional depth.

I wasn’t so keen on the sexual-exploitation themes of the main villain. Yes, this was a bad person doing bad things but at times the writing pushed into tittilation/exploitation. Nor was there a strong plot reason for it – indeed it required characters to repeatedly note that this element was out of character for the villain.

The political framing of the story was both topical and (as Stross has noted) somewhat overtaken by events. The British government being parodied is the bumbling rightwing cynics we thought they were prior to the Brexit referendum rather than the evil incompotent clowns that have been revealed since. So no Boris Johnson analogue and no Donald Trump jokes. However, Stross doesn’t hold back on pointing out how Tory ‘auesterity’ policies have gutted important aspects of British life and made the country inherently more fragile.

Witty, snarky, spy-thrills fun.


But, but you wouldn’t change Wonder Woman’s gender…


The rhetorical ju-Jitsu move from some critics of the recent Dr Who casting announcement is an attempt to flip the argument. If gender doesn’t matter and characters can be recast as different genders then shouldn’t you essjaydoubleyous be cool with a man being cast as Wonder Woman?

There are some good and bad counter-arguments on this:

  • A bad counter-argument is any one based on the in-universe canon for the character. That kind of argument ignores how flexible superhero canon (or Dr Who canon) is. The story can do anything and parallel Earths or gods or cosmic powers can make any outcome canon. In the comics, there have been at least two short-lived male versions of Wonder Woman.
  • A more specific argument about what Wonder Woman is about as a character is a stronger argument. Unlike other characters, being a woman is more closely tied to the *premise* of the character – not in terms of backstory but in terms of what the character is about. In this sense, Wonder Woman is more like James Bond – the character is more closely connected to the issue of gender roles than other (although Wonder Woman has been about subverting traditional roles and Bond has been about reinforcing them).
  • The strongest argument is the pragmatic one. No, casting a man as Wonder Woman is a stupid idea because there is a tiny number of superhero franchises with a lead woman character. Between Marvel and DC films the sum total is currently ONE and that’s Wonder Woman. Even counting superhero team movies women are seriously outnumbered. Adding in Marvel and DC TV’s shows doesn’t improve matters much.

But that last question leaves open the question of whether in principle a man could be cast as Wonder Woman. I think my answer would be similarish to the Bond one – it would be difficult to do but not in principle impossible. Of course, that implies there are lots of ways it could be done wrong (e.g. just for the purpose of sexist/transphobic comedy). I’m also not sure exactly what a successful attempt would be like or why that story would be a more important one to tell than the many other untold stories of a woman who is a superhero – so accepting the possibility doesn’t imply it is necessarily a priority.

In short – cast a man as Wonder Woman but not yet and not for a long long time yet.

*[ the depth cues on that artwork feel all off to me. Superman’s fists don’t look like they belong to him and Superwoman looks like she is a tiny person kicking Superman’s shoulder]

The Name’s Who, James Who

As we are on the topic, let’s talk about James Bond* and Doctor Who. Along with Sherlock Holmes, these characters are the superheroes of British pop-culture: they exist independent of their stories, they are re-inventable and yet recognisable, and effectively have super powers.


With a woman cast to play Doctor Who people have cast around for suitable analogies for an equally significant change. As a new James Bond has not been cast and as Daniel Craig is moving on, comparisons with James Bond being cast as a woman have been made. I don’t think the comparison is apt.

Having said that I very much NOT saying it couldn’t be done or that it would be a mistake. Certainly, we’ve already had women cast successfully in similar super-spy roles of one kind or another. There is no reason why a ‘Bond Film’ (i.e. a film with the core elements of the movies and the same dramatic beats and set-pieces) couldn’t have a woman as the lead character. However, I think successfully creating a version of James Bond who was both a continuation of the character AND a woman would be a substantial challenge for both the actor and the writers in a way Doctor Who simply isn’t. Nor is that a reason NOT to do it – if anything it is a reason TO do it. Avoiding doing something because it would be difficult and challenging is not what James Bond would do, now is it?

So what’s the difference? Aside from one era, Doctor Who as a character has never been about ‘maleness’. Now by ‘maleness’, I mean a fiction – a fiction that comes out of a bigger fiction about society having two distinct gender roles. This isn’t to say both the show and the character hasn’t reflected social views of its day, including hefty heaps of casual sexism but they have not been central to the character.

The exception was (I believe) the Matt Smith/Stephen Moffat combination. I’m not rehashing all the various arguments about Moffat’s sexism or lack there of but rather a core element of his writing. Moffat’s comedy gold mine has been his particular view of the ‘battle of the sexes’ which in turn arises out of British TV comedy. Repeatedly (and it has to be said amusingly) Moffat has relied on a number of tropes/stereotypes around heterosexual romantic relationships:

  • Moffat men are emotionally illiterate
  • Moffat men are essentially big kids
  • Moffat men are infuriating to their partners
  • Moffat women are confusing to their partners
  • Moffat women are great and lovely etc but also hard to fathom
  • Moffat women are mercurial

Note I’m not saying this is Moffat’s actual view of human society but rather this is a formula he works into his comedy writing that has worked for him and with he applied to Doctor Who as well. He returns to it because it allows for a comedy of errors that feels modern and fresh but which rests on a very simple view of society. That doesn’t mean he never writes gay characters nor does anything in those trope force women into specific kinds of professions or wider social roles but it does shape how characters interact. So, in this sense, the Matt Smith Doctor had existing elements of the character emphasised so that the Doctor became a Moffat male comedy lead.** Ironically this kind of self-deprecating maleness is something that the assorted forces of misogyny currently howling about Jodie Whittaker becoming the Doctor, should be glad to see gone – while it emphasised a Mars v Venus dichotomy it was less then complimentary about maleness (yet still steeped in privilege i.e. men-are-a-bit-crap-but-you-should-love-them-and-find-their-faults-endearing).

Back to James Bond – unlike the Doctor, Bond has always been tied not just to attitudes of the day but also to a specific view of masculinity both as supposed ideal but also a wish-fulfilment. Bond is physically fit, strong and virile. He is rarely prone to self doubt, he is hyper-competent, he has excellent taste but is not pretentious, he is knowledgable but not intellectual, he understands women better than they understand themselves and so on. He is also a sexist pig.

More broadly he is also a kind of walking avatar of privilege. Even his iconic double-O code is a privilege: a license to kill. He does things and gets away with doing things. While he, himself is not rich nor politically powerful, he moves easily among the rich and powerful. Now, arguably the Doctor does all that as well but there is a dramatic difference. Bond is comfortable in the surroundings of wealth, power and authority and belongs to what is best described as the British military officer class (not necessarily rich or from an aristocratic family but familiar with that world). Both Bond and the Doctor might, in the course of their adventures, walk into a room full of military officers and boss them around, Bond is doing so in a way that doesn’t subvert of disrupt the existing order, whereas the Doctor does so subversively and in a way that requires suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. Of course of the two it is the Doctor who is actually from a kind of aristocracy (i.e. a lord of sorts…) whereas Bond isn’t and arguably the Doctor’s tendency to disrupt and subvert the existing order of things (including everything from the chain of command to what genre the story is in) is also a kind of privilege.

Casting a woman as Doctor Who has been a long time coming but part of that, aside from the general lack of leading roles for women actors, is that it was never a truly radical change for Doctor Who in terms of its own structure and in terms of the character. The Doctor’s capacity to walk into any situation, any social structure or civilisation or organisational hierarchy and reshape things has never been based on him being a manly-man who people obey because he is so manly but rather has been on the basis of an implied super-power or psychic ability (in reality plot convenience that has become a character trait). Overtly sexist characters being discombobulated by the Doctor upending everything will be fun to watch but also quite in keeping with the various ways a ‘dandy and a clown’ have bossed around brigadiers and space monarchs.

Bond is a bigger challenge to recast as a woman precisely because privilege has been a core part of the character operating within environs in which racism and sexism is entrenched. However, that doesn’t imply it shouldn’t be done. The two Lovecraft themed Hugo 2017 finalist novellas demonstrate that there are rich creative possibilities in looking at existing fiction within which racism and sexism are deeply baked and looking at them with new perspectives. The challenges in recasting Bond as a woman are revealing in themselves, as indeed they would be if the character was cast as non-white. The issue is not his physical strength but the assumption that only a person with the right appearance and accent and gender is entitled to act that way in the circles he moves in. Of course, attempts have been made to update that setting – Timothy Dalton’s Bond was less promiscuous, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond retained the casual sexism but was cast with a formidable Judi Dench as his boss. More interestingly in terms of re-examining the character, Daniel Craig in Casino Royale played an agent called James Bond through most of the film but one who doesn’t adopt the sociopathic demeanour of James Bond until the end (with the classic them, and gun barrel animation only playing at the end of the film).

My point being, a woman Doctor is never going to be as interesting or as challenging to our view of the world as a woman James Bond would be – or indeed any James Bond that departs from white-male-British-military-caste. Casting a woman as James Bond forces people to think about how Bond has functioned as a character and how that relates to maleness not in terms of, say, physical strength but in terms of a character who can act with impunity because he acts on behalf of a monarchy, a military caste and British interests. These are all reasons for casting a woman as James Bond, simply because it would be a more interesting world if that happened.

*[throughout I’m referring primarily to the movie character rather than Ian Fleming’s character or later written versions]
**[I think the Clara/Danny Pink relationship may have been an intentional attempt by Moffat to reverse and subvert his own tropes, with Danny often taking the emotionally more sophisticated and long term perspective of the relationship. Moffat has many faults but he does change.]

More Dragon Award Projections

On July 25 or thereabouts, I’ll publish a list of works I’ve seen people put forward as Dragon Award nominees. The main sources are here:

I’ve picked up a few others since but these are mainly a single author on Facebook or other social media waving vaugely at the awards and their books. In some cases the author didn’t mention the categories they suggest being nominated for – which could make a big difference depending on how the people running things handle votes splite across categories.

Meanwhile, the Dragon Awards really do owe Declan Finn some comission or at least a MVP award. While scrappy interest in the Dragons has been high, I think only Finn has posted multiple discussions of possible nominees that include a variety of suggestions (i.e. not just a single slate).

His latest list is here

I’ll add that to the pot.

A woman being cast as Doctor Who is so traumatic that it causes a science-fiction author to forget when he was born

How powerful is a work of art? Can it inspire awe or merely amusement? Does its presence cause a lasting cultural impact or is it some minor fad, soon forgotten amid the new season’s schedules?

With Doctor Who we can see the sudden and immediate impact. Take this experimental subject – a 55-year-old male from the United States who works as a professional science fiction writer:

“I read that the 13th Doctor is slated to be female. Well, I have had enough. In the last few years, Thor is a girl, Wolverine is a girl, Hawkeye is a girl, Vision is a girl, Hulk is a girl,Iron Man is a girl, The Question is a girl. These are not merely female sidekicks or variations, as when Batgirl or Supergirl don a costume to help out. These are replacements for the male meant to erase the masculinity from the name brand.

I have been a fan of Dr Who since age seven, when Tom Baker was the Doctor. I have tolerated years of public service announcements in favor of sexual deviance that pepper the show. But this is too much to tolerate.

The BBC has finally done what The Master, the Daleks and the Cybermen have failed to do. They killed off the Doctor. Dr. Who is dead to me.”

The sudden shift in perspective has apparently caused a subjective loss of ten years of memories and/or a radical shift in the space-time vortex and/or the author jumping to the often confused continuity of UNIT.

Or…maybe it was a typo and John C Wright meant “seventeen”, as 1978 fits with both Tom Baker and the show airing on PBS in the US. I prefer the other explanation though.

The Doctor Who/Star Wars crossover movies

We now have enough for a list:

I think that’s it – less than you would imagine given the heavy use of British actors in Star Wars.

[ETA: aside from the many examples below, I also forgot that the 7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) was also a wizard along with Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) in the Hobbit movies]

And the next Doctor is…

Jodie Whittaker

Not somebody on my list but fits the casting habits of Chris Chibnall the new showrunner. Chibnall who had worked on Doctor Who and show-ran Torchwood, had a habit of casting Doctor Who actors in other shows he was involved in (Law and Order: UK, Broadchurch). Consequently, there was some chance that it would be an actor who was in Broadchurch who might be the next Doctor. I was keen for it to be Marianne Jean-Baptiste but apparently not.

For SF fans, Whittaker most notable SF work was Samantha, a nurse who gets mugged and who is then caught up in the alien invasion of a London council estate.

A not-to-adventurous choice. Some quarters (e.g. our old pal Vox Day) are complaining that casting a [gasp] woman will ruin a show they don’t watch. I’m more worried about where Chibnall will take the show than the gender of the actor but a casting decision that suggests some originality is a hopeful sign.

Who discovered global warming?

In his last attempt to disprove global warming, John C Wright has pointed out that he doesn’t know who discovered global warming.

” Again, who is the scientist who discovered Global Warming?”

Arguably it isn’t the most illogical argument he has used in his on going struggle against reality nor even is it his silliest. It requires both a simplistic view of science, where each discovery has one and only one owner and an elevation of his own ignorance to the status of a counter-argument.

So, firstly, mapping single individuals to distinct discoveries is a simplification, intended to make the history of science easier to follow. Yes, Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of Species and hence is a central figure in the theory of evolution by natural selection but his genius was not solitary.

Still, maybe global warming is still somehow unusual in this regard. Maybe Wright has some sort of point that the theory just popped out of nowhere. Yeah, but no. It really is as simple as Wright being intentionally ignorant and then claiming that his own ignorance demonstrates a flaw in global warming as an idea.

So, who did ‘discover’ global warming, given the basic caveats of all such discoveries being upon the shoulders of giants/research communities. Well, firstly what is the thing being discovered? It can be broken down into several parts:

  1. the Earth’s surface is warmer than would be expected (i.e. there is some kind of ‘greenhouse’* like effect)
  2. the atmosphere is what makes it warmer
  3. some gases in the atmosphere must be ‘greenhouse gases’ and play a role in keeping Earth warm (of which water vapour is the biggest culprit)
  4. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas
  5. If you increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere then average surface temperatures should increase all other things being equal
  6. This is actually happening


So, in the unlikely event that John C Wright ever reads this, now he knows who ‘discovered’ global warming.



*[No, greenhouses don’t work that way exactly – the name is a metaphor]