Halting State

by Charles Stross

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: October 2007
ISBN: 0-441-01498-4
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 351

Buy at Powell's Books

I had hopes after Glasshouse (which should have won a Hugo) that Stross had moved past deluging the reader with technical jargon for effect, or at least had left it for the Laundry series where it fits. Glasshouse wasn't as limpid as other SF authors manage, but compared to Accelerando it was a breath of fresh air. Alas, in Halting State, Stross is back to throwing around computer terms, jargon, and geek stereotypes with abandon. This was annoying and distracting and hurt my ability to enjoy the good parts of this book.

But, merits first. Halting State follows three protagonists: Sue, an Edinburgh beat cop called out of panic into a baffling crime; Elaine, a forensic accountant (what a brilliant occupation for a science fiction novel); and Jack, a massively multiplayer on-line role-playing game (MMORPG) developer who recently got laid off and ends up being hired to be Elaine's guide in her investigations. The crime that brings all three of them together: a bank robbery in Avalon Four, a MMORPG, by a dragon and a marauding band of trolls.

Stross does a great job of balancing the absurdity and seriousness of crime and business in the on-line gaming world. It's almost impossible for anyone to take the robbery seriously at first (it's just a game and some entries in a database table). But a lot of people play MMORPGs in Stross's future, and that means a lot of money is involved. That the theft was even possible indicates that core cryptographic authentication codes have been compromised. Elaine's employers are looking to find Hayek Associates (the firm that ran the bank) liable. And then one of the Hayek programmers goes missing and appears to have been murdered, turning the bemused Edinburgh police suddenly serious.

Halting State leads smoothly from the sort of story one would laugh at into an investigation of fraud, computer crime, and murder that's quite serious. Stross then goes a bit overboard; I found the ending less plausible than the middle of the book as Stross complicates the picture with European anti-terrorism cops, conspiracies, espionage, and other excess thriller material. The ending is still a lot of fun, full of neat ideas and dramatic extrapolation of the security problems with network infrastructure, but I thought the additional recomplication and dive into top-secret government agencies was unfortunate. I liked the evolution from absurd to serious and the understanding of why anything with lots of people and money involved matters even if it's "just" a game. The ending diluted that message a lot and went back into absurdity that's wrapped up all too neatly.

Idea-wise, Halting State is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink tour of MMORPGs, network security, virtual reality, and the phenomenon of mass-culture shared games. Some of these ideas work exceptionally well. Stross's look at the finance and economic side of MMORPGs is great, particularly the analysis of the economy of "fun" and the sort of dirty tricks that MMORPGs would use to compete with each other. Some were less successful. The degree of centralization and importance of router security, for example, is implausible, both in terms of the central coordination and in terms of what breaking the security of a backbone router actually allows. (Haven't these people ever heard of point-to-point encryption?) And Stross's cellphone-based gaming platform involved some strategic hand-waving that made the plot a lot easier. It's horribly convenient for the story for the MMORPGs to be based on a completely distributed data model with no central data store, but it's hard to swallow that any company would give up that much control over what's happening in the game.

Stross does know technology, though, and I liked the way he handled quantum computing and its impact on cryptography. This sort of present but not easily accessible threat and the corresponding chaos of a half-finished transition between technologies felt real. He may have a few plot-driven bits of technology and build some parts of his world to justify making in-character RPG battles meaningful, but I can forgive a lot of that for detailed computer technology that I only want to nitpick rather than laugh at.

As I mentioned earlier, though, the style of the book is less successful. Stross makes extensive use of jargon dumping and geek stereotypes. Sometimes, it's effectively humorous, but the stereotypes in particular started to grate. I'm looking forward to the literary world in general getting past this portrayal of computer experts as no-life, monofocused, obsessed losers, and it's particularly annoying when someone who knows the culture like Stross choses to populate his book with extremes and stock stereotypes. People do not talk in normal life, particularly during police investigations, the way that they might post for dramatic effect in alt.sysadmin.recovery. Experts in other fields are usually treated in novels as possibly baffling and quirky but respected. There's nothing special about computers that makes experts in that field particularly pathetic.

That being said, this problem is mostly seen in the supporting characters at Hayek. The characterization for the rest of the book, particularly including the Edinburgh cops, is quite solid. Even Jack, who's the protagonist interface to the computer expert world, worked for me as a character despite some stereotyped behavior. I thought his relationship with Elaine was well-done from both sides, better than Stross's normal touch with relationships.

One final complaint: Stross made the unusual choice of writing this book in second person present and stuck with this for every scene despite having three very distinct protagonists. It's a defensible gimmick, particularly given the MMORPG source material, but it doesn't work. He might have been able to pull it off with a single viewpoint character, but when each chapter moves between three characters, it's painfully clear that none of them are "you" and the tense is an artifice. I can see places where the perspective helps with immersion in the world, but I think it hurts more than helps. I spent most of the book mentally rewriting it into tight third-person so that I could get into the story. MMORPGs are sometimes in theory second-person, and I've played the very rare console RPG in second-person (Baten Kaitos is the only one that comes to mind), but neither are books and even in games this perspective is rare. There are good reasons why nearly all console RPGs are told in tight third person even though the player is physically controlling one of the characters. Neither the game nor the novel offer the reader or player any real choices, giving second-person perspective a cognitive dissonence that's hard to ignore over a long work.

I think the degree to which the flaws in Halting State will bug you depends on your enthusiasm for Stross's gung-ho, idea-rich style. He delivers quite effectively on the shiny, in the classic idea-driven SF sense, and it was often enough to offset the flaws even for me. I expect this book will find admiring readers among MMORPG players and computer gamers in general. There's even enough depth of character development to satisfy those less enamoured with ideas, if they're willing to read past the surface style. (Elaine in particular is a great character.)

I wish Halting State had been written more like Glasshouse, which is still Stross's best work to date, but for all the annoyances I still had a lot of fun reading it. Recommended, but you're probably going to roll your eyes at times.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-12-22

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