Book review: “Halting State”, Charles Stross (Orbit)

A tale of virtual cash, virtual crime and real-life, big-ass swords...

Sometimes, it’s the cover that gets you.

In this case, with the pixel art, battle axe-wielding Orc and laptop-wielding geek, I knew that Charles Stross’ “Halting State” (Wikipedia summary contains spoilers) was for me before I ever cracked a page or read a word of prose.

That it arrived in my hands boasting a William Gibson jacket blurb certainly didn’t hurt, but the book is strong enough on its own to not require special pleading or cool design – it more than justifies the time that you’ll take to enjoy it, albeit with some caveats that you might like to take into account before picking it up/grabbing it at the library/downloading it to your totally futuristic e-book reader thingy (full disclosure – I read the mass market paperback.  Didn’t crash once…).

“Halting State” is set in a near-future Scotland, where devolution from the UK has happened,the European connected state ideal has been firmly embraced (…ahem) and follows three characters – Police Sergeant Sue, Forensic Accountant Elaine and MMO systems designer Jack – in alternating chapters as they investigate financial impropriety at a tech company administering an MMO game.

And this is where the major issue comes in for some readers – the narrative is told via the Second Person perspective, which causes many readers to run screaming for their bookshelf and the  comfort of the nearest third person novel to hand.  Simply put, if you’ve ever played an old school PC adventure title – “You are standing in a field.  A house lies atop a hill in front of you.  A mailbox sits to your left.  You are holding an Aardvark on a lead” – you won’t have any problems with the way that this story is told, but some reviews of the book really take issue with the successive chapters being told by a different character, mostly due to a perceived similarity in the character’s voices.

One’s Scottish and a copper, one’s a bean counter who likes LARP-ing and wielding big swords and the other’s a geeky bloke who’s forgotten more than we’ll ever know about gaming feedback loops – it’s not as if these guys are the same person wearing a different shirt.

Also, I’m at a loss as to how one might confuse Police woman Sue’s narrative voice – which ye ken is so Scottish that it might well radge some readers – with Jack’s over-caffeineated code monkey.  There’s not a great deal of cross-talk between them – it’s like saying that you enjoyed Tolkein but couldn’t tell when Gandalf was talking and when Merry was gabbling.

I digress…

The thing that I enjoyed most about this book was the plausible near-future which it conjures – it’s a book which posits a future with omnipresent internet connectivity routinely funnelled into our lives, where data overlays/Head Up displays tell you about bus times, drop a Google maps type app into your field of vision and tablets are kind of thing of the past (though I’m not sure that people would whole-heartedly embrace wearing the equivalent of VR goggles when out and about – the popularity of 3D movies is probably an indication that I could be very wrong about what people are willing to tolerate if it gets them fancy tech, though).

There are drone cabs, piloted by call-centre workers, the police use an all-seeing, all-recording interface called  CopSpace to record evidence, witness testimony and the like and there’s no escaping the digital future because it’s the digital present and everybody’s on board.

If there’s another slight issue with the plot, it’s the idea that the general populace seem to have completely embraced the geeky MMO space – I may be damning the Normals by assuming that some things are way too spoddy for them to ever contemplate, but I can’t see folks who set their Sky planners for “Coronation Street” and “Strictly Come Dancing” ever getting into the world of instances, DPS and guilds, although the MMO’s alluded to in “Halting State” do cover non-traditional subject matter, with the fictional football hooliganism sim “Steaming” being notably low on +10 armour sets, chaotic neutral mages and epic mounts.

Despite having a subject matter which might seem initially daunting to newcomers to gaming, the essential plot of “Halting State” – an impossible heist pulled off in a virtual game space and the various professionals whose expertise converges to solve it – isn’t that far away from the more accessible tech-thrillers of the late Michael Crichton or William Gibson’s recent spy-fi novels.  And on that basis alone, I really enjoyed it – I may follow gaming but I’ve never set foot in Azeroth and Stross does just enough to make the detail in his book be convincing without being so esoteric that it becomes off-putting.

Give this book a try if you’re on the look-out for something new to read.  I loved Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel “For The Win” and its take on the MMO games space and unionization – this is in a similar wheelhouse, albeit a more cynical and adult one where the hardest realities of capitalism butt heads with creativity in an oft-bloodied battle which gets into higher stakes territory as the story progresses.

TL; DR version – Do you like Iain Banks’ non-sf, ‘edgeverse’ stuff?  Read “Halting State”.

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