No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

#66: Halting State -- Charles Stross

You can see it coming, slamming towards you out of the future, like the empty white static that is all anyone has ever heard from beyond the stars, a Final Solution to the human condition, an answer to the Fermi paradox, lights on at home and all the windows tightly shuttered. Because it's a thing of beauty, the ability to spin the cloth of reality, and you're a sucker for it: isn't story-telling what being human is all about? (p.111)

Halting State is the story of a bank heist with a difference, a heist where nothing (physical) is stolen and there's no (physical) crime scene, though there's a fine recording of the actual theft being carried out by a band of Orcs and a dragon ... Sergeant Sue Smith, called in by Hayek Associates (who 'stablise the economies of seventeen imaginary worlds' and have recently made their IPO) to investigate the crime, is flummoxed: forensic accountant Elaine Barnaby (a keen fencer) is beginning to suspect that her bosses have an agenda they haven't mentioned: and Jack Reed, unemployed programmer with two embarrassing secrets, has to wonder how a job opportunity like this dropped into his lap at just the right time ...

The novel is told from three viewpoints, all second-person present-tense, with distinctive voices: a technique which fixes the reader in the moment, in the characters, though it can occasionally feel claustrophobic. Despite being partly set in gamespace -- the virtual environments of Avalon Four, Zone, Spooks and others -- It's also very firmly rooted in post-independence Edinburgh, 2018. And it's rooted in the genre, with nods to Discworld, to Forgotten Futures, to Neuromancer ('the colour of the night sky above a Japanese city', 208)

Stross has found the perfect way to insert high fantasy into a hard Sf setting -- and to have space marines with BFGs taking out Oberon the Warlock. The plot focusses on the borderlands between reality and virtuality: characters hiding behind avatars, individuals whose real-world skills and knowledge map in unexpected ways, people whose interactions with the virtual are more meaningful, more real than anything they do when they're not logged in. The virtual is not the real world, but it's most definitely real.

There's some sharp observation here too, not least about the ongoing conflict and mutual misapprehension between geeks and businessmen:
after seventy years of data processing, they still think that coders can be hired and fired; that the engineers who ripped out the muscles and nerves of the modern world and replaced it with something entirely alien under the skin are still little artisans who will put their tools down and go home if you tell them to leave the job half-done. (p. 335)
And there are some extremely funny scenes -- not least when Jack's contemplating 'the information transfer going on ... via some kind of sub-verbal mammalian protocol layer' (203). I liked this a lot: it's fun, funny, thought-provoking and multi-layered, and it's a future that I find familiar and comfortable, in the broad sense if not in the detail.

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