Sunshine, The Halting State is the best near future thriller I’ve read since first encountering John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider nearly thirty years ago. Indeed I’m quite surprised that it’s being marketed as sf genre fiction and not as a mainstream novel! Like The Shockwave Rider, The Halting State is a clear and logical extrapolation of current technology pushed a mere decade into the future. And like Brunner’s novel (which deserves to be read by anyone who cares about what technology can do to a society), Stross’ novel presents a society both like and quite unlike our own.
(The Shockwave Rider was originally published in 1975. The protagonist’s use of computer hacking to escape pursuit in a dystopian future, and for the coining of the word “worm” to describe a program that propagates itself through a computer network, makes it a foundational work in the cyberpunk genre. It also introduces the concept of a Delphi pool, most likely derived from the RAND Corporations’ Delphi method — a futures market on world events which bears close resemblance to DARPA’s controversial and cancelled Policy Analysis Market that would have predicted coups, wars, and the like.)
Now you’re asking why I called you ‘Sunshine’. That is my way of making sure I mentioned one of the unique aspects of The Halting State. With Stross living in Scotland (though he wasn’t born there), and since it is set in a post-independence Scotland, the author has wisely decided to write the novel using large chunks of Scots English vernacular language.
Now I’m familiar with the language as a number of Green Man staffers including Iain MacKenzie, our Librarian, are native Scots, but I imagine a number of readers will be shaking their heids (sic) as they puzzle over what he’s saying. If you’re puzzled, I recommend watching an episode or two of the long running Dalziel and Pascoe series where Detective Chief Inspector Andy Dalziel speaks rather thick Scots English, or even 55 Degrees North, a series set in Newcastle near the Scots border where many of the performers are very obviously Scots. Listening to it being spoken helps a lot in reading the written version.
The Halting State is a police procedural first and foremost. A band located within a massive(ly) multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) has been robbed by a band of orcs and one very nasty fire breathing dragon. So what’s the problem? After all, the money’s not really real, is it? Ahhh, but it is, as the bank and its contents are worth millions in the real world. Just think of the value of anything digital — though it be non-tangible, it has a value to someone. Player resources (spells, weapons, other enhancements) can be bought and sold today on eBay and other more specialized sites as one wishes. Some are limited to a specific game, but some can be used in any MMORPG. So any bank looted is a serious crime. And if something else, perhaps more sinister, is going on as well, the authorities will, if only by accident in this case, sink their teeth into the matter. As well as certain other interested parties who have a vested interested in covering their arses.
Like The Shockwave Rider, The Halting State is a brilliant extrapolation of Future Shock author Alvin Toffler’s comment that the future arrives too early and in the wrong order. Now, to quote Stross from his blog, ‘why nobody in their right mind is going to trust a bank in an MMORPG that isn’t backed by a real financial institution, or at least the MMORPG company itself with a fat deposit in an account somewhere . . . only to say more would be a spoiler for the novel’. And so I won’t say more than that Stross has created a mystery-slash-thriller extrapolated from what exists now with characters that are interesting and a storyline that is both plausible and rather chilling in its implications, i.e., the newly independent Scottish Republic is a rather effective police state because of the surveillance technology of 2017! And keeping in mind that human nature is a constant even when technologies change rapidly.
Is this the best novel he’s written to date? I think so. I’ve read damn near everything Stross has written and until I read this novel, Iron Sunrise was my favorite work by him. The only odd thing here was the second person perspective used by different characters which Stross notes in his blog this way: ‘a second person is so rarely applied to fiction is that it’s directly intrusive into the reader’s head. Instead of staying decently outside the narrative and peering at the actors, the second person directs — you become part of the story, bouncing around uncomfortably inside it. And the biggest reason this is uncomfortable is . . . characterisation.’ It works, but like the Scottish slang, it takes just a bit of getting used to. But once you get your heid around the second person perspective, it works perfectly.
Stross tells me in an email that there will be no sequels as the future will overtake his scenario in a rather short time. And that perhaps best sums up the brilliant nature of this novel in taking our present and glimpsing just a bit into the future. Believe me when I say that this a story you won’t want to miss reading.
(Ace Books, 2007)