Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review of Halting State by Charles Stross

Early science fiction speculated only here and there on the possibilities of gaming and alternate realities in virtual space.  Arthur C. Clarke’s The City & the Stars mentions the idea in passing, and in William Gibson’s Neuromancer the larger possibilities begin to emerge.  Later writers, like Neal Stephenson, Greg Egan, Ted Chiang, and David Marusek for example, expanded life in virtual reality into whole stories and novels.  But it is Charles Stross who has fully understood and embraced the ever-expanding realities of gaming and second lives and included them in fiction.  A science fiction realm if ever there were, his 2007 Halting State­—part gamer’s gush, part conspiracy theory, and all nerd rapture—is a prime example of contemporary society’s involvement in virtual worlds.

Halting State is the story of three people and the political, technological, and virtual mess they get themselves into with a popular computer game.  Edinburgh detective, Sergeant Sue Smith, is called to the scene of a bizarre crime in the opening chapter.  What looks like a concrete bunker on the outside is actually the headquarters of Avalon 4, a massive multiplayer online game, and they have just been robbed.  Not the petty cash drawer or the source code of their wildly popular game, rather the virtual bank that exists inside Avalon 4, and all of its virtual items and money.  Elaine Barnaby is an insurance fraud investigator.  Her company called in to investigate the Avalon 4 case, her job only becomes more surreal as the investigation moves from the real world into the virtual, and her own role in the proceedings even murkier as the sides lose concrete shape. And lastly is Jack Reed.  Waking up hungover and handcuffed to a signpost in Amsterdam, his status as an unemployed programmer takes a turn for the better when Elaine’s firm requires his technical expertise to help investigate if or how the virtual crime was pulled off.  Insider trading?  An opportunistic hacker/player?  Insurance fraud?  As more and more details of the case are unveiled, the more and more complex the world—and our world—become. 

Halting State is a combination of classic detective story and early 21st century understanding of online gaming and its associated legalities, corporate interplay, governmental information interests, and global network possibilities.  In presenting his story, Stross caters to a tech-savvy audience by using relevant lingo and gaming and sys-admin slang, but likewise has a broader view to the to the pervasive reality of video games, their position in the IT sector, and the influence they have on corporate and market interest amongst ordinary people.  The writing often addressing modern identity and police state concerns, the side comments and metaphors typically fit better in the meta-context of story than the story itself.

Halting State written in the second person, Stross tries to bring the gaming experience to the novel.  The quality of the result depending on perspective, readers more accustomed to video and computer games will probably find being directly addressed less noticeable than readers more accustomed to first and third person narratives.  For many, it may be the first story they’ve ever read in the second-person, and for this will at least be a novel experience (har). While for others still, the second person view will blend the three main characters together rather than distinguish them, and thus be something of a detriment.  It’s also worth noting that in developing the idea, Stross tries to parallel virtual life to real life via the experiences had by the characters in and out of alternate reality.  Regardless of narrative perspective, the parallel adds a small amount of depth to the story, but considering it is not expanded significantly, leaves the focus on plotting and relevant geekery.

For those familiar and accepting of Stross’ style of writing, Halting State will be more of the same warm, happy goo.  Peanut gallery comments on corporate life and minor digressions touching upon some super-nuanced detail of the IT sector, nearly every page contains some direct or indirect reference to modern (i.e. technologically replete) life.  Numerous, numerous are the similes and metaphors attempting to be both humorous and clever.  Many in fact witty, they are offset by more which fall flat.  The novel overwritten, Stross can lay it on thick as peanut butter (see what I mean), as per the following lines:

    It’s like that first alcoholics anonymous meeting: “Hi, my name is Jack. And I have a code problem.”
    You’re a grown-up, these days. You don’t wear a kamikaze pilot’s rising sun headband and a tee-shirt that screams DEBUG THIS! and you don’t spend your weekends competing in extreme programming slams at a windy campsite near Frankfurt, but it’s generally difficult for you to use any machine that doesn’t have at least one compiler installed: In fact, you had to stick Python on your phone before you even opened its address book because not being able to brainwash it left you feeling handicapped, like you were a passenger instead of a pilot. In another age you would have been a railway mechanic or a grease monkey crawling over the spark plugs of a DC-3. This is what you are, and the sad fact is, they can put the code monkey in a suit but they can’t take the code out of the monkey.

In the end, Halting State is an original novel about the illicit possibilities of online gaming attached to the scaffolding of a standard detective story/nerd’s dream (i.e. programmer saves the day and gets laid).  Owing as much of itself to Asimov and Niven as Gibson and Stephenson, Stross nevertheless injects his own style into the proceedings.  Part of the generation which saw the rise of the internet and can understand the changes it has brought to society, a knowledge of programming and networks and experiences working cubicle space endow the narrative with appropriate degrees of tech and cynicism.  This cynicism captured in infinite similes and metaphors, as well as the plot’s conspiracy theory undercurrent, the novel is likewise a post-modern text of distrust: with so much information available, just who to believe? Stross one of a kind nevertheless, he remains one of the unique spots in modern science fiction, and will be recognized as such in the future—paranoid or not.

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