Halting State by Charles Stross
Published by Orbit (UK) Jan 2008
Published by Ace (US) October 2007
ISBN: 9781841499648 (UK)
351 pages (ARC copy from Orbit Books)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
Having recently reviewed The Atrocity Archives (link HERE) and been impressed, I was very pleased when this arrived on the doormat. Charlie’s latest is another espionage thriller: however this tale is set in a future independent Republic of Scotland, a world filled with hypersensitive identity awareness, biofuel buses, policepersons with smartphones and live video linkage (CopSpace), and online entertainment to die for.
The book begins when an online game company, Hayek Associates, reports a robbery within their online game Avalon Four to Edinburgh police – one where a bunch of orcs and a ram-raiding dragon blast down the doors of the game-world’s central bank and run off with loot. Very amusing. Police Sergeant Sue Smith, investigating the matter, soon realises that it is less entertaining when she is told that the heist is actually a real one, with the cyberpirates actually hacking into the company through the game and making off with real, though virtual, loot.
This is clearly an attempt to bring down the company’s share price for other’s financial gain. Such actions of international theft bring in major repercussions. Elaine Barnaby, a forensic programmer for the head company, Dietrich-Brunner Associates, is brought in to recognize what has happened and who is liable. In turn, Jack Reed, game programmer, is employed in order to help check with the technical details.
We are soon immersed in a story unusually written in the second person, with each chapter written from one of the three key character’s perspectives. The investigation uncovers the idea that taking part in a real-world game may actually be more serious and important than we first realised, and when one of the key company managers is found dead, possibly murdered, we end up in a much darker place than at first anticipated.
It’s often said in writing forums that you should write about what you know. This book seems to have lots of links to many of Charlie’s career interests involved, enticingly amalgamated with all the characteristics that I now realise are expected in a Stross book. There are lots and lots of geek-links and uber-cool references: Stross’s alien slaad (from his days of working in White Dwarf) make a brief appearance, for example, and there are sly digs at games management and software production, computer programming and computer technicians, as well as knowing nods at current social trends and emergent technologies, extrapolated logically forward. The relevance of a future based on constant surveillance is both scarily and creatively shown here. And all of this in Charlie’s now trademark hyper-dense style.
On the minus side, the characterisation is in places a little self-knowing and clichéd, though it is all mainly done with a sense of fun. At other times the combination of humour and the social message do not always sit at ease with each other, though it can also work to good effect. The ending is similarly good-humoured, though a little predictable. The touches of Scottish speech and lifestyle involved throughout are enjoyable, though may be a little annoying or unnecessary for some.
Nevertheless, this is a book that feeds the inner-geek, that reaches out to the computer-obsessed amongst us who recognise Stross’s world and who are prepared to play around intelligently with the future. As such, this is lots of fun, though at times one with a serious undertone. Recommended.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, September 2007
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