Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Charles Stross - Halting State

Charles Stross, Halting State, Ace, 2007.

There's a phrase I really hate: "It sounds like science fiction, but...", usually followed by a description of some scientific or technological advance. The assumption behind this usage is that science fiction describes things that are impossible, or at least unlikely. In fact, science fiction is often based on real scientific theory, and many things first described or popularized by science fiction authors have become part of our reality, or have been supported by scientific research.

Halting State is a near-future story, set in 2018. I always think it takes courage to set a story such a short distance in the future, and it will be fun to wait and compare the reality of that year with that described in this book. The descriptions of the technology and its implications seem to me quite plausible. We are living in a rapidly changing world, and it is interesting to compare our current lives with the way we lived ten or twenty years ago, and to extrapolate from our present to the possible future.

Not many authors use second person narration, and it did seem strange at first. Each chapter title contains the name of the view-point character, which helped in some cases. The style appears reminiscent of what players would hear in a traditional role-playing game like D&D. The dungeon master would tell them something like: "You walk around the corner and see three orcs coming towards you". In this respect the author is taking on the role of omniscient DM. However, the second person voice seems less appropriate when describing the characters' inner monologue. It sometimes almost sounds like the characters are being told what to think... I know that the degree of omniscience in a third person narration would be identical, and that only a first person voice really explains how these inner thoughts and feelings are known and narrated to the reader, but somehow it felt strange here. But I soon got used to it and accepted the literary device.

The story starts with an unusual bank robbery. This robbery takes place within a bank in a role playing virtual reality game. It shouldn't have been possible, and there are financial implications in the real world. The three main characters set out to investigate: a local police officer, Sergeant Sue Smith; Elaine Barnaby, a forensic auditor sent from London to Edinburgh to investigate the games company on suspicion of fraud; and Jack Reed, a games programmer hired as Elaine's consultant and guide to the gaming world. They employ their various skills to discover what is happening, which turns out to be far more complicated and serious than they could have expected.

The plot moves like a fast-paced thriller, and contains some insights into the predicted society. The characters grow and learn new things about themselves and their world, and the resolution feels satisfactory. Jack, in particular, has two secrets that have had an impact on his life. His developing relationship with Elaine, and the events they experience, force him to share these secrets with her, leading to the touching emergence of hope into his life.

This is a story that will be particularly welcomed by gamers and geeks (I use this word in the positive sense!), as it contains insights into the possible future development of gaming, gadgets and computing in general. One of the more interesting implications is the mixture of gaming and real life, when people will be playing in public, seeing the game on their glasses and using various control devices to interact, which seems a bit more dangerous than listening to music on your iPod on the train, for example. Another aspect is the ability of the police, for example, to record everything they observe (not only video, also things like measuring the stress levels in people's voices and body language). While this would prevent cases of people later denying what they had said in interviews, it seems a bit labour-intensive if all this recorded evidence would have to be reviewed afterwards, and memory intensive if it had to be stored indefinitely.

This is a highly enjoyable, intelligent and engaging story.

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