It is said that the best way to improve a recipe is to change just one ingredient at a time. By limiting the change to a single thing, you can easily tell what effect it had on the outcome. If you make a bunch of changes at once—oil for butter, honey for sugar, nutmeg for cinnamon—it’s harder to find the cause when it all goes wrong.
It’s not just cooking and baking, of course. The core of the scientific method is taking something well known (called the control), making single a change (called the independent variable), and measuring the differences between the two.
It’s also one of my favorite literary devices. I love stories where they take the real world that you and I see every day—the control, if you will—and they change one thing, make one thing that’s not true, true. Then we watch as that change reveals something new about the world we take for granted.
Kurt Vonnegut’s writing
is full of this, taking something that's barely impossible and making it barely possible. The genre of Magical Realism can be this subtle, and Animist Realism fiction from Asia and Africa often does it, though there aren't a lot of it translated to English. But to me these scientific experiments are at the heart of speculative fiction, changing one thing about the world as we know it exploring the ramifications.
Which is why I've been catching up on The Laundry Files
novels. Charles Stross’s long running series is, at it’s heart, a workplace drama about an I.T. consultant dealing with a bureaucratic thicket that could only the the British civil service. The stories and novels are overflowing with sarcastic humor, which gives its more serious themes more bite than a pure satire would.
But it’s not just a workplace drama. There’s one thing different. In the world of The Laundry Files, there is a branch of mathematics that can turn reality ninety degrees, revealing tentacled horrors that hunger for human souls. Unfortunately, like how Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz independently developed calculus, people are independently discovering this occult calculus. For most of history, this has been a limited problem because the theorems from beyond simply eat the brain of the experimental mathematician and then disappear back to the dimensions they came from. It has been a hard area to study.
But computers are really good at doing math, rapidly and efficiently. We’re building them into everything from cars to lightbulbs, and we’re connecting them together. We've given them the ability to see and act, and it’s all that The Laundry (the secret British agency for fighting the occult) can do to keep digital Lovecraftian breakouts from getting out of control.
Unspeakable ancient horrors are not a small thing, but the analogy is clear. Our extensive network of electronics can be hijacked to propagate evil intent. With technology this complex, even well-meaning people can cause things to go horribly wrong. So it’s been fascinating to watch the Laundry Files stories unfold, starting with The Atrocity Archives
, first published in 2004 when computing power and networks were comparatively tiny, up to last year’s The Delirium Brief
where the power of computers, networking, and the possible evils summoned through them are massive, and possibly beyond our control, even if they can't summon demons.
Though each of The Laundry Files books has enough information to bring a reader up to speed, Stross’s books are best consumed in order, starting with The Atrocity Archives
, where one small change in the recipie of reality alters everything that comes after, particularly for one mid-level I.T. consultant.