Halting State by Charles Stross

Orbit, 2010, 376p, plus author interview.

 Halting State cover

Since Christopher Priest’s bemoaning of the Clarke Award shortlist in which Halting State‘s sequel Rule 34 is included I bumped this up my reading list.

The usual caveat applies to this review. I did see an early version of the first chapter or so, back in the day. The author is a fellow member of the East Coast Writers’ Group and of Writers’ Bloc.

The setting is a near future independent Republic of Scotland in 2016 or so. A bank in an on-line game is robbed, despite the levels of encryption involved. A panicked employee of Hayek Associates (the Edinburgh company overseeing the game) calls the local police. This leads to the involvement of our first viewpoint character, Detective Sergeant Sue Smith. The other two narrators are Elaine Barnaby, an insurance fraud investigator, and Jack Reed, an IT specialist just sacked from his previous job and on a bender in Amsterdam. An unusual facet of the book is that all three strands are written in the second person – a notoriously difficult authorial trick to pull off. Here the conceit is mostly effective. It only falls down a few times and after a while becomes almost unnoticeable. (Sue Smith’s narrative voice jars, though, at the times when USian creeps in – Defence with an ‘s’, ‘out back’ for ‘out the back,’ ‘fit’ for ‘fitted’.) As the story proceeds layers of complication add in, as not all is what it seems, even in the real world.

The dangers of writing SF set in the near future are apparent even only four years after original publication (2008.) The banking-crash-induced recession and our present day austerity are entirely absent and the ubiquity of the location software, of driverless vehicles and so on feels a bit premature. Not to mention that a Scottish Republic is unlikely in the short term. However, if read as an Altered History (which will actually be necessary in five years’ time) these problems disappear.

Such technologies’ vulnerability to hacking/decryption is foregrounded, highlighting our growing dependence on such things. (I would add that they are equally vulnerable to a simple loss of electricity supply to servers etc.)

One of Christopher Priest’s complaints was that Stross uses ‘Och aye’ dialogue. On this ground I acquit him. The book is set in Scotland after all. Not being Scots born it is more than commendable that Stross makes the effort to convey local speech – he still lives in Edinburgh – even if sometimes his ear is not perfectly attuned. (Oh, and the word dreich doesnâ’t have a ‘t’ at the end.) He even has one of his narrators display the Edinburgher’s antipathy to all things Glaswegian.

The book is clearly aimed at a target audience of games players in addition to SF readers. Small portions consist of the MMORPG which was hacked into; these integrate well with the main thrust, as indeed does game playing. In this respect, pace Mr Priest, outright literary quality might be considered to be a drawback. Horses for courses. Halting State is not deep and not pretending to be, but I enjoyed it. Whether a ‘light’ novel like this deserves an award, though, is surely a matter of subjectivity.

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