Halting State
by Charles Stross

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Ace: New York, 2007

368 pages July 2008

Real crime in a virtual world

When I bought Halting State, I hoped it might turn out to be a suitable nominee for this year's Prometheus award. Stross's previous fiction has often used libertarian ideas in an intelligent and informed way (notably in Singularity Sky and its sequel, Iron Sunrise; and I'd read that this novel involved a financial firm called Hayek Associates, which sounded like a promising little joke. Having read it twice, though, I don't see much in the way of libertarian content. It's merely an intelligent, well-written, and sometimes quite funny novel that I found a delight to read.

Halting State is the same kind of departure for Charles Stross that Rainbows End was for Vernor Vinge. It represents a move from the distant interstellar future to events a decade or two from now, from space opera to technothriller. In fact, the two novels have a lot of common themes, including international political conflict, the transformation of espionage by radical decentralization based on computer networks, and the real-world impact of virtual reality and computer games. They're also alike in having a strong sense of place: Rainbows End takes place in San Diego, and Halting State mainly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, meaning that each author is writing about a place and a cultural milieu he's personally familiar with, extrapolated by a decade or two.

Halting State has many elements of another genre: the police procedural. One of its viewpoint characters, Sue Smith, is a detective in Edinburgh who;'s called in to investigate a bank robbery. But this is an unusual sort of bank robbery: the bank is located in a virtual world, its clients are player characters in a fantasy game setting, and the robbers were a band of orcs backed by by a fire-breathing dragon.

On the other hand, the simulated currency of this setting has an exchange value, not just with the simulated currencies of other game environments, but with real world currencies. (This point, by the way, is not an invention or even an extrapolation; virtual gaming environments already have such currencies, and government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service are starting to make rulings about them.) The plot grows out of this situation, as several different viewpoint characters investigate different suspects of the break-in — and find themselves in deeper trouble.

The handling of viewpoint is one of this novel's gimmicks. Like "choose your own adventure" books, or the text in many computer games, it's written in the second person: the viewpoint character in each chapter is not "I", "he", or "she", but "you". I take this to be a deliberate stylistic device to reinforce the link to gaming. I expected to find it irritating; in fact, after a couple of chapters, it seemed so natural that I stopped noticing it.

The other two investigators in Halting State are a professional author and a programmer she hires as a consultant. Both have backgrounds in virtual reality games, but of very different kinds. The three focal characters are dissimilar enough to be easily told apart, but they have at least one important thing in common: all three are competent, not just technically but as a general attitude toward life — they have what Ayn Rand and her followers call "efficacy". Reading about people like this is one of the pleasures of science fiction and some other forms of genre fiction, less often found in mainstream fiction, and Stross provides it in good measure. By the end of the novel, the competence of all three viewpoint characters has been repeatedly tested.

The other thing that makes this book enjoyable to read is its undercurrent of humor. This is partly a matter of characterization, and partly of ingenious small references to the science fictional subculture. All the way through my first reading, I kept pausing to smile or laugh out loud. All in all, I recommend Halting State as an entertaining and thought-provoking book for anyone who likes police procedurals, technothrillers, cyberpunk, or just clever extrapolations of the near future.


© 2008 William H. Stoddard

First published in Prometheus, Summer 2008
Libertarian Futurist Society

Charles Stross author site

W. H. Stoddard's review of
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