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August 9, 2007

Halting State - Charles Stross

I said that The Attrocity Archives was the novel to draw the Slashdot crowd into SF, well I'm tempted to say that Halting State is even more so that novel, but maybe that's aiming too low, because I reckon that readers of mainstream thrillers will enjoy this too. At times it reminded me of Ludlum, a hero and a heroine fighting against the world, although Stross's heroes are a lot more human and a lot less super-assassin material. Another comparison I feel compelled to make is with non-SF Iain Banks, maybe it's just the fact that the story is set in Scotland, but something about the tone and the characters reminded a bit of Banksies "literary" novels.

The story is near future Science Fiction, set mainly in an independent Scotland and on the surface nothing is too different, which is an observation that one of the characters makes in the novel itself; all the change is lurking beneath the surface. For example everyone uses virtual overlays to augment reality, kind of like Google Earth layers, but real-time on your Internet Glasses. And lower down the stack, society is even more dependent on the net and the utilities that it provides, which raises interesting security issues. You could take it as a warning, but that doesn't mean it's not inevitable. As you would expect for a Charlie Stross novel, there's loads of great speculative ideas inside, in fact some of them came true last week. Really. (The danger/joy of near future SF!)

One of the most enticing aspects of this novel was the use of second person point of view, which is rather unusual for modern science fiction. Using this point of view the reader becomes the character, and the narrative tells you what you are doing, what you are thinking. After a chapter this ceases to feel strange and is quite involving. It also allows a few nifty reveals throughout the story, because the narrative doesn't always tell you, the reader, everything, because well, as the character you already know it don't you?

Stross has also introduced a way of weaving fantasy into the science fiction, by using computer games that the characters play. So you get crazy fantasy World Of Warcraft style fights and battles, as the characters play inside a computer game. Clever, and fun. The theme of games runs throughout the story: LARPS, ARGS, MMORPGS, and also the games that people play in real life. I've never played WoW or wandered around Second Life, but I really enjoyed the gaming sections and descriptions.

The three main characters in the story are an interesting mix: a Scottish cop, a software developer and a forensic accountant. I particularly enjoyed descriptions of Jack working, there are some passages in the novel that are the most accurate descriptions I've read in fiction of what it is really like to be a developer: stuck deep in code, coding and debugging, time flying by, the narrow but deep domain specific knowledge. Perhaps there's hope for me as a hero yet!

The plot has a whole load of twists and reveals, which meant that about three quarters of the way through I was suffering slightly from twist fatigue, I thought I knew what was really going on but wasn't entirely confident. You drop through trap doors, one after the other, until you hit the floor at the end with a bang. It all gets cleared in a crime novel style retrospective infodump, which might have annoyed me if I hadn't needed it (just to be sure of course).

This is the third Charles Stross book that I've read in the last few months, and two more before that, and I reckon this is his best yet. It has everything I've come to expect from a Charles Stross novel: great SF ideas and an exciting plot that makes it hard to put down, but it's also better than previous novels, more realistic characters and some nicer language on top. A fantastic near-future SF novel that captures the current zeitgeist of computer technology in its extrapolations. Halting State is published by Orbit in the UK in January, one to spend your Christmas present book vouchers on.

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Charles Stross is posting some chapters from his latest novel Halting State online. Here's the prologue. Here's my review of the book.... Read More

1 Comment

Ooooh this one sounds right up my street. Nice review!