Short Attention Span Review™
Halting State by Charles Stross was not the book I was expecting. As a gamer and MMORPG player the book piqued my interest based on the description. Instead of getting the intrigue of a mysterious bank heist that takes place in a game world, with virtual reality hackers infiltrating a world of adventure to hunt down the guilty . . . Halting State gets quickly mired down in a Scottish police procedural.
The story revolves around three characters. Sue, Elain, and Jack. Sue Smith is Detective Sergeant in the Ediburgh, Scotland police force. Elain Barnaby is an insurance fraud investigator for Dietrich-Brunner Associates. And Jack Reed is a contract programmer and MMORPG player hired for his expertise. Basically the entirety of the story is a convoluted and confusing plot involving orcs stealing [+5 Epic Swords of Awesome], stock put options, cryptography, global terrorism, Chinese hackers, blacknets, and various other random geekology. Whenever a reader finds out that insurance fraud is involved, you know you are probably not in for an epic adventure and should probably consider cutting your losses!
I didn’t. I hung in there for the duration, drinking in the second-person narrative like a boss! Let’s talk a little bit about this second-person narrative business. This is the first book (that I can remember) that I’ve read in that voice. At the beginning of Halting State it was strange and just a wee bit distracting, but that strangeness soon wore off. Throughout the entirety I kept asking myself why Stross made the choice he did. The only reason I can come up with is that the second-person method is often used when playing pen and paper role-playing games, often used by the game master to describe that game action to the other players.
“You walk under the shadow of the trees and you can smell the fetid and rotting vegetation that squishes beneath your feet. Looking up into the dark canopy you can see glinting eyes staring back at you . . . etc.”
It works in that usage, and I remember using the exact same voice when doing my duty as a game master . . . ahem . . . decades ago. But it doesn’t really work in a piece of serious fiction where people are being shot and murdered.
The other problem with Halting State is it’s chock full of geekology that few will fully comprehend. If you aren’t (or don’t know) one or more of the following, all of the references might be lost on you: a gamer, specifically a MMORPG player; have knowledge of how the high tech business world works; a UNIX system administrator; know something about online cryptography keys; know how options trading works; are a database admin/programmer; and/or understand the concept of virtual overlays. I fared pretty well. I was only lost on the backend system administrator lingo. Stross’ book takes place in the very near future, but every bit of it is firmly planted in today’s reality. And if the reader doesn’t have the background of some of these subjects, they might not get hopelessly lost but it will certainly distract them from the storytelling.
The prime suspects are a band of marauding orcs with a dragon in tow for fire support. The bank is located withing the virtual land of Avalon Four, and the robbery was supposed to be impossible. When word gets out, Hayek Associates and all its virtual “economies” are going to crash hard.
For Smith, the investigation seems pointless. But the deeper she digs, the bigger the case gets. There are powerful players — both real and pixilated — who are watching her every move. Because there is far more at stake than just some game-head’s fantasy financial security . . .
Halting State by Charles Stross
Series: Halting State #1
Genre: Science Fiction / Cyberpunk
Media: Book, paperback, 324 pages
Cover Art: Sophie Toulouse
Stross seems to love acronyms. The book is brimming with them. Often he doesn’t decrypt what the acronym stands for, and when he does he might not reveal to us what it actually means, or how it impacts the story. Underlying the entire narrative is a bit of wink, wink, nod, nod from Stross, almost like he’s under the presumption that all of his personal geek friends are reading it, not an average reader who has no knowledge of these subjects. I got the impression that he was trying too hard to prove his nerd cred to readers who really don’t have an interest in his nerd cred.
Lastly, Stross is from the UK, and the story takes place in near future Edinburgh. Halting State is full of Scottish/UK slang that will be foreign to most North Americans. This isn’t a slam or a negative, it’s simply a reality that I’m pointing out . . . and it can bring reading to a screeching halt when you have to contemplate what a character might be saying, especially Sergeant Sue Smith.
That’s not to say everything about Halting State is bad. There are some great near future concepts within, the most intriguing being the description of virtual overlays. Think Google Glass taken to the next level where you can superimpose virtual worlds, characters, scenery, signage, etc right over the top of the real world. Everything the police do is recorded and uploaded to be filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, and numbered later during trials, investigations, and probably future lawsuits. Based on the direction law enforcement is heading today I see this being a reality sooner rather than later.
Ultimately if you strip away the near future technology, the geekology, and all the slang, what you’re left with is a convoluted and confusing episode of CSI, and to be honest I’ve never been a big fan of police procedurals.