Fantasy and political satire brings Awards for Edinburgh’s master of sci-fi, Charlie Stross

Santa is being shackled to a cross outside Hamley’s Toy Shop on London’s Regent Street by four elven warriors who are intent on executing him in the first paragraph of Edinburgh author Charlie Stross’ new novel.

Author Charlie Stross
Author Charlie Stross

The gruesome scene opens his latest novel, Dead Lies Dreaming, in which the parallels between the dystopian world of the writer’s Laundry Files novels and the one we find ourselves living in today are disturbingly familiar. It’s a point not lost on the Broughton-based sci-fi author, but then the action and characters in his books are “extrapolated from our current lived reality”, he explains.

“Dead Lies Dreaming is set in a grimly dystopian future where magic is widely accessible and a government called the New Management bears as much ill-will as some of the nastier Tories, except they are competent, and yet, people are reading it as consolatory escapist fiction because our current reality is so horrible. That is the scariest part of it for me,” says Stross, adding, “Imagine what the consequences would be if magic was a thing that was accessible and all the horrible ways it could go wrong. For example, can you imagine if Boris Johnston had the magical power to compel people to believe everything he said at least for 15 minutes?”

Set in the world Stross established in his award-winning Laundry Files series, Dead Lies Dreaming, a political satire, is a great jumping on point for anyone unfamiliar with the previous books in the series and like those that have gone before, it’s written for an adult audience.

Dead Lies Dreaming, by Charles Stross

"All my books are for adults to some extent, they are not written for young adults or kids,” emphasises Leeds-born Stross, who moved to Edinburgh in 1995 having discovered that life as a pharmacist, a previous occupation, was not for him.

He explains, “That was the result of some spectacularly bad career advice. I was a pharmacist in a hole in the wall pharmacy in a bad part of Halifax in 1988 when I got a visit from some plain clothes detectives. A pair of armed robbers on a motorbike had knocked over 10 pharmacies in a twelve month period and they thought my shop was next. When they come in and take Polaroids of the interior of your workplace so that they know which way to shoot when there's a hostage situation or siege, that really does focuses your mind on finding a new career.”

A few years later he moved to the Capital to join a web consultancy, switching to writing full time after the collapse of the dot com bubble in 2000.

He says, “Edinburgh is the most lovely city I have ever lived in. I had spent a few years in London and that was just was just dismal, so I put down roots in Edinburgh and, much to my surprise, 25 years later I'm still here.”

Now with three coveted Hugo Awards to his name his novels have been described by SFX magazine as 'a fast-paced blend of espionage thrills, office comedy and Lovecraftian horror'. They take readers into a fantastical world of magic, old gods and people imbued with super powers.

"While the first seven Laundry Files centred on Bob Howard, a supernatural James Bond-type character, the series branches off in a new direction with Dead Lies Dreaming. Still billed as a supernatural spy thriller, it paints a nightmarish vision of a Britain in which magic has gone mainstream, the adventure starting as a policewoman and a group of petty criminals are pulled into a heist to steal a book of spells that should never be opened…

"It's set in an alternative world that looks a lot like ours at first but in which it turns out that magic is a side effect of mathematics; if you solve the right theorems using the right methods, entities elsewhere in the multiverse will listen and may do things.

"It features a rather seedy organisation left-over from the wartime Special Operations Executive known as The Laundry – it was originally based above a Chinese laundry in Soho during WWII. Of course, that was the hook my editor at the time pinned the series title onto, which is kind of embarrassing slightly. At the end of the seventh novel, which was written to the background of Brexit, there has been a coup d'etat and a hideous Elder God is now in Downing Street - this isn’t very fictional right now, is it?” he asks.

Which is where Dead Lies Dreaming picks up the story.

“It’s the start of a trilogy and I do have the draft of book two waiting,” says Stross, refusing to give away anything more.

If Dead Lies Dreaming has a distinctly London feeling about its setting, another trilogy-to-be, his Halting State series, plays out in his adopted home of Edinburgh.

In the first book, Halting State, we find Edinburgh Detective Sergeant Sue Smith investigating 'a bank robbery in a virtual world' while the second, Rule 34, a loose sequel, takes its title from 'Internet meme Rule 34', which states that: 'If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions'. This one follows Lothian and Borders police Inspector Kavanaugh as he investigates the gruesome murders of spammers killed in inventive ways.

It's a trilogy-to-be as the final book, The Lambda Functionary, originally planned for 2014 was delayed until 2018 and has still yet to be written – Covid 19 saw to that.

“I was going to write a zombie novel set in Edinburgh with a rather unusual zombie virus, an unusual response to it and, of course, a crime, only for us to be hit by a viral pandemic, at which point I really don't want to be writing a pandemic novel,” he reveals.

Setting the trilogy in the Capital brought, “depth, texture and a rather different outlook on life” to that series, reflects Stross, adding, “Scotland is a very distinctive country and as a setting it is just fascinating,” adds the author, admitting he’s delighted to find himself making a living from what was his hobby, or as he puts it, telling lies for money and tormenting his imaginary friends.

Dead Lies Dreaming, by Charles Stross, is published in hardback by Orbit, priced £18.99

Don’t miss our four-part extract series from Dead Lies Dreaming, starting tomorrow

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