I read Accelerando earlier this year; it was my first experience with Charles Stross, and it was a bit of a mindjob. While Stross is known for “hard” scifi, Accelerando quickly vaulted into a plausible-but-fantastic realm that probably wasn’t very indicative of the Stross that was recommended to me when I read Daemon.
It’s far easier now to see what my commenter was referring to now; Daemon and Halting State have very similar plots, but the latter is intelligent, interesting, accurate, and engaging, while the former is none of these things. But I don’t want this review to draw Halting State merely as the antithesis of Daemon; needless to say that Stross doesn’t make the same mistake that Suarez does, which is to try far too hard to prove his technological mettle1, and therefore make the entire book about his weary attempt to sound impressive. With Stross, technology is woven so closely to the fabric of the story that it becomes invisible, and serves to support the story rather than become the story.
Halting State is, at first glance, about computer gaming; more specifically, it theorizes the eventual expansion of massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) into an even greater economic force than they are currently. Technology has advanced just enough to allow such games to exist as a sort of augmented reality—and this same kind of technology suffuses the working world as well: CopSpace, for instance, is a virtual overlay which transplants a visual representation of police data into real life, at least as viewed through specs. With the rise of online gaming, however, comes its economic importance, and this is where the story begins: a company which acts as a sort of bank for one of the more popular MMORPGs is virtually robbed, which brings three main characters into the mix. The first is Sue, a ball-busting cop; the second is Elaine, a forensic accountant for an elite firm; the last is Jack, a brilliant programmer who, when we first meet him, is handcuffed to a lightpost in Amsterdam, inebriated and high.
Stross’ characterizations are not necessarily his strong suit; these aren’t stock characters, necessarily, but they do fit some of the moulds. Sue is about as much of a Luddite as one can be in the context of this near-future world; the sort of action hero who would kick down a door while the less-muscled nerd was trying to pick the lock, and much hay is made of her abject confusion when it comes to the internal rules and nomenclature of gaming. Elaine and Jack, who are gamers themselves, are much more adept at navigating the narrative. Even still, it seems as though Jack is still having to backtrack, sitcom-like, and explain himself whenever he comments about a technological topic; one may argue for its realism, though it strikes me as merely pedantic and tiresome.
As I mentioned earlier, Stross writes what is known as “hard” scifi, and as such it is focused on technical accuracy and realism; there are no space aliens injected in order to spice things up, or Michael Bay caricatures2, or deuses ex machina literally from machines, or cure-all Science™ or other cheap tricks from lazy fabulists. You could argue that the whole purpose of science fiction is escapism, but I would posit that the best science fiction is usually less like Star Wars and more like Starship Troopers3. It’s usually one of two tracks:
- Use the futuristic setting in order to exaggerate or accelerate a time-agnostic point; e.g. Accelerando featured a legal system wherein patents could be granted literally in the blink of an eye, and the book’s sidelong treatment of this problem is an indictment not only of our current patent process, but such information systems in general.
- Speculate how technology with solve or create problems; in Halting State‘s case, the problem is (a) pervasive gaming culture and (b) an acquired reliance on imperfect information systems. Add to this mixture a dose of human greed, incompetence, and violence, and you’ve got a book.
Halting State doesn’t necessarily think the big thoughts in the way that Accelerando does; it is, after all, a techno-thriller and not a space opera. But it does say something about the risks of technology (and state actors) and how, given the rate at which technology in general and gaming in particular is becoming not only a part of a culture, but a part of our economy, such matters can quickly escalate out of the province of soda-drinking teenagers and into a matter of national security.
- There were only a few occasions where Stross dropped buzzwords that didn’t sit correctly. Though the story takes place in the semi-near future, when quantum processors are a reality, one of the characters still refers to an AVI—likely this is used as a generic term for digital video, but the tendency to quote specific acronyms is misplaced in this case, since AVI is a video container format, and is already on its way out in 2009, supplanted by better formats like MP4 and MKV.[↩]
- e.g. The Hacker, the Sexy Female Nerd, the Gruff but Tender-Hearted Soldier, the stolid General, etc.[↩]
- The book and not—sweet Jesus—the movie…[↩]