Halting State Paperback – 24 Jan 2008
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A great read, and a fascinating look at the future of security in a massively networked world (Bruce Schneier, CTO, BT Counterpane)
The first couple of pages had me hooked, and I didn't touch another book until I finished it. (John Carmack, Technical Director, iD Software and creator of Doom and Quake)
As keenly observant of our emergent society as it is our emergent technologies, Halting State is one extremely smart species of fun. (William Gibson)
A great read, and a fascinating look at the future of security in a massively networked world. (Bruce Schneier, CTO, BT Counterpane)
Cutting edge SF and police procedural meet in Charles Stross's compelling and timely thriller.See all Product description
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In the four years since Halting State was published, the real world has indeed caught up in some respects. In particular there is now a thriving market in virtual goods from video games, and there really have been crimes committed - real world crimes - in video games. But it doesn't matter to the reader that this science fictional story isn't quite as science fictional as the author intended. Science fiction doesn't have to be about our future to be entertaining (Jules Verne is still a good read) or about wondrous technologies (Earth Abides has none), it's about modern (post-Enlightenment) people doing or creating plausible things and may explore the ramifications of technology and science (as does A Canticle for Leibowitz). Authors worry about their technologies and the characters' situations being novel because they don't want to appear - at the time of publication - to be incapable of coming up with new ideas, but readers should care mostly about whether the book is entertaining. And this one is. Stross rarely fails to deliver.
I only really have one nit to pick. The political arrangements of Scotland, England, the UK, and the EU are obviously a bit different in the book than they are in our world, with Scotland having rather more independence, but also being somewhat tied to English apron-strings - and both are rather more subservient to an apparently federal Europe. The lack of clarity here was a bit irritating, and more irritatingly it could have been done away with entirely. Every single bit of that, even Scotland's greater independence, isn't particularly important to the story and the politics's role in the story could easily have been taken by purely domestic bodies.
But that's a very minor concern. The book is great fun, and you should read it.
It's a simple enough plot. In the near future, a company which runs the bank for a fantasy computer game is robbed, online. The company recruits a mismatched computer games programmer and forensic accountant to investigate. The police have also been called in, by mistake, and there's a race between the two teams to uncover the real motives of everyone involved.
The story is essentially contemporary, with some Gadget Show wish-fulfilment technology thrown in. The novel was inspired by a newspaper story about a real world theft of online resources with real world value, so that element isn't completely science fiction. In the halting State world online computer games are completely immersive, and police body armour comes equipped with self-contained CCTV, which is actually quite a throwback to the old school future seen in early films like Aliens. There's a lot of technobable, but the more you understand computers the more you'll appreciate it's both informed and authentic. The late-entry McGuffin of a new type of supercomputer is probably the most obvious science fiction element, and it flashes in and out across a few pages just to oil the plot machinery.
For the most part the book holds up as a modern police procedural, and it satisfies as hard-ish science fiction because of the author's genuine gadget love, games experience and computer knowledge. It's light comedy and action for about 95 per cent of the way, and the only real flaw is the rushed ending. But sometimes it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
The saddest part about the science fiction trappings is that even in such a short space of time they have started to feel dated. What might have seemed outlandish or geek-friendly three years ago is almost commonplace today - hand-held portable high definition video recording, GPS devices which can overlay massive amounts of data over a map of your immediate surroundings, and our increasing dependence on vast mobile networks of incredibly smart phones. The only real misfire is the anticipated continued explosion in online gaming.
The best comparison I can think of for non-science fiction fans is that Halting State has the same fast pace and pop culture savvy sensibility as "proper" contemporary Scottish thriller writer Christopher Brookmyre. It's great.
Wow, was I wrong. And extremely pleased to be too. It starts off in near future Edinburgh and then the plot thickens and thickens. I'll not spoil the plot, but I will say that when you think you've got it all worked out, you're wrong. And each twist is internally consistent with what went before. If "Hackers" and "The Usual Suspects" had a love child delivered by "The Matrix" then this would be it's autobiography.
The main plot device in this book is the use of VR technology and mass online gaming. Even though I work in software development, I've never felt a need to experience World of Warcraft and the like. This probably hindered my reading enjoyment as there was a lot of technical jargon to get through.
I liked the idea that it was set in an independent Scotland, but I feel this aspect could have been expanded on more.
Overall, I kinda liked this book. It had a lot of good points, and did draw me in - but I did also find the whole online gaming stuff hard to follow at times. Although I don't know if I'd recommend this book, it hasn't put me off reading other Stross novels.