Charles Stross: Halting State

Review of the novel Halting State by Charles Stross.

Charles Stross’ novels have wandered all over the speculative fiction map, from fantasy/adventure to space opera to really-high-tech space opera, and now to the near future in Halting State. The book takes place in 2018, mostly in Scotland which has seceded from the United Kingdom but is still part of the European Union. The book opens with a theft at a Hayek Associates, but it’s not an ordinary theft: Hayek runs central banks for several MMORPGs, storing virtual equipment and loot securely for their virtual owners who are off adventuring elsewhere. Someone has managed to attack the company through the game and make off with a large volume of virtual assets, essentially corrupting the live database Hayek keeps in trust for its clients, and thus putting its reputation and market value at risk. The marketing director at Hayek panics and calls the local constabulary, which is how Sue, one of the three protagonists in Halting State, gets involved, as the officer who takes the call.

Hayek’s insurance company learns of the crime, and worries not only about its liability, but about its own reputation. It sends a cadre of officers to Hayek to find out what happened (and cover their asses), including the second protagonist, Elaine, who fears that she’s being positioned to provide cover for her bosses. As part of the outing, her company hires an outside programmer to help them get oriented to Hayek’s business from a technical side, and they end up with Jack, who’s recently unemployed and had a run-in with the law while on vacation in Holland, but who really knows networked computer games.

The catch is that the theft at Hayek is actually a blind for several other things going on, one of them much larger and indicative of how espionage games might be played between the major powers ten or thirty years from now, and our heroes get caught in the middle of it – along with a whole bunch of other people.

Halting State starts slow and takes a while to get moving, although once it does there are lots of little clever bits: Ways gamers put their skills to use in a world where the virtual and the actual can be blurred, as well as the disconnect between people who only deal with the “real world” and the stakes in a virtual game where virtual assets and reputations have real value. Stross has clearly thought about these issues pretty carefully, and is familiar with both the techies and the non-techies so he can portray both types of people believably.

The book’s biggest flaw is that a lot of it feels superfluous. Sue’s presence seems like a side-issue, as she rarely interacts with Elaine or Jack, and she only seems to be there to witness a couple of key scenes in the book. She doesn’t really add much value, herself. Mostly the book is Elaine’s and Jack’s, and it seems like Stross is maneuvering them to be a “team” in the same way that Rachel and Martin are a team in Stross’ earlier novels Singularity Sky and its sequel, which makes me wonder if he has sequels to Halting State in mind. (Honestly, I’d rather read more novels in the higher-tech and more interesting Singularity Sky universe.) There’s also a lot of running around, especially the big event that Sue witnesses when the EU equivalent of the Men in Black show up to try to solve the case, which effort ends in chaos but to little effect on the story. Basically, the story feels padded.

It’s also told in the second person, which at first seems like a silly little conceit, but eventually I realized that it’s evoking the feel of the text adventure games of my own youth, which are often told in this voice (“You’re standing on a road. It’s a sunny day.” “Go north”, types the player. “You’re standing at the entrance to a castle.”). The voice wears thin after a while in any event, so I still found it to be a silly little conceit. Stross likes to play with style and structure, which I usually appreciate, but he casts his net so wide that I often find his experiments to be very hit-or-miss.

I’m not generally a big fan of near-future SF, usually because I don’t find the tech level to be fantastic enough to really thrill me. Stross does his level best in Halting State to wow the reader with network security concerns, cutting-edge computer hardware, shifting geopolitical strategies, and novel ways to use resources on the network (such as the humans who are logged into it), but the story ends up being merely okay, and the climax felt like a letdown. I think too much finesse left the story feeling a little ethereal, especially since a few of the scenes of maximum excitement seemed like they didn’t move the story forward (although it’s entirely possible that I’m just not seeing a piece of the big picture).

It’s a nice try, though.