Review: Halting State, by Charles Stross

halting_state_large_UK

Orbit, ISBN 978-18414-96948

(Review first published on the ASIM website, February 2008)

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Charles Stross is a British SF writer who appears to be rapidly accruing a reputation as someone to watch. His new novel, Halting State, is a sly, wry poke at the possibilities and the dangers inherent in our increasing reliance on technological advancement.

At its core, Halting State is a mystery novel, with a decidedly sci-fi bent. It concerns a robbery, to which the police are summoned; but it’s a robbery by a band of orcs and dragons, within the confines of a massively multiple online role-playing game. At first, it appears that the robbery has very little if any relevance to the concerns of the Edinburgh police, but it gradually transpires that the theft ties into real-world events in a number of surprising, disturbing, and ultimately highly dangerous ways.

The story is told through the viewpoints of three characters: Sue Smith, a sergeant with the Edinburgh police force in an independent Scotland of a dozen years hence; Elaine Barnaby, a London-based forensic accountant with a side interest in swordplay, who has been hired to investigate anomalies at Hayek Associates, the IT company which has been providing the facilities of the online bank that’s been robbed; and Jack Reed, a gaming programmer subcontracted by Elaine’s accountancy firm to provide an expert assessment of the gaming practices that have been used to effect the robbery. Successive chapters follow the story through Sue’s, then Elaine’s, then Jack’s eyes, although always from a second-person perspective.

I have to say I found the second-person viewpoint gimmicky and offputting to begin with, though it seems to work overall: by about halfway through you’ve stopped noticing it, and it ultimately strikes you as rather endearing. (It helps that Stross is better at it than I am.) The constant conversational ‘you’ perspective also fits the heavy use of jocularity and dialect: with two of the viewpoint characters being Scottish, there’s almost-continual exposure to intriguing slang terms such as ‘bampots’ (which I believe to signify either petty criminals or children), ‘radge’ (rage), and ‘mobie’ (mobile phone). Coupled with the playful exaggeration of much of Stross’ description throughout the book, the nonstandard English usage creates an often lighthearted feel to the narrative. This tendency to whimsicality is, in some measure, at odds with the fundamentally serious nature of the overall plot’s premise, and this disparity might be seen as a weak point in the book’s structure (though I didn’t find it so myself). For all that the storyline pivots around a robbery of imaginary magical items, committed by make-believe orcs and dragons, the ultimate real-world crisis that devolves reasonably naturally from the actions and reactions of the various characters is quite plausible, wide-ranging, and somewhat disturbing. Stross’ future vision is certainly not dystopian, but in his light-hearted fashion he’s pointing out, here, how straightforward the descent into chaos might become.

The book’s slightly fast-forwarded glimpses of future society are detailed, consistent, and generally plausible: interactive eyewear, chronically high oil prices, subtle changes in the political landscape (from, naturally enough, a Eurocentric perspective), driverless vehicles (both autonomous and remotely piloted), and a proliferation in virtual entertainment. The three protagonist identities – cop, accountant, and games programmer – are varied enough to provide three realistically distinct interpretations of the pros and cons of these technological advances. For example, one of the most initially surprising of Stross’s extrapolations is CopSpace, a real-time interactive virtual overlay, viewed by police officers through their Specs, identifying objects of police interest within the immediate field of view. It’s the kind of tool that does more-or-less follow from the increasingly widespread application of digital technology, and it’s integrated here into the storyline in an unspectacular, believable fashion.

It would be easy to interpret Jack, the lone male among the three principal protagonists, as Stross’s alter ego: Stross has form as a programmer and as a designer of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ monsters (one of the book’s in-game sequences involves an attack on Jack’s and Elaine’s avatars by Slaadi, toadlike monsters which Stross developed for D&D’s “The Fiend Folio”). Whether this interpretation is valid or not, the characters of Sue and Elaine are also solidly drawn, and if their backstories as police officer and accountant mesh less closely with Stross’s own personal history, their personification is detailed enough to suggest that Stross has done his research. There are no glaring glitches in continuity, and once the story has properly hit its stride (after a couple of chapters per participant) there is little enough pain for the reader in switching from one viewpoint to the next. The three narrative strands (which inevitably intermingle to a greater or lesser degree) are each intrinsically interesting enough to be worth following, as the central mystery deepens by increments.

If I have a criticism of the overall story, it’s that it unexpectedly falls short of the gonzo crescendo towards which it appears intially to be headed. I was, I think, expecting more ‘in-game’ action than is delivered, as well as a more stridently-delineated crisis. On balance, though, the book’s underlying realism is generally a good thing, and the story certainly has enough intrigue to sustain the reader’s interest.

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2008)

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