This one had me by the second sentence of the dust jacket. The book opens when Scottish police are summoned to a bank robbery. The baffled cops are completely unable to understand what the victims are saying until a video replay starts. In it, a troop of orcs and their dragon fire support walk into a bank, subdue the employees, and make off with a fortune in magical blades, armor and trinkets. The bank robbery took place in Avalon Four, a popular MMORG, and the company responsible for the virtual economy wants its treasure back. The cops have only one response: call in the nerd reinforcements.
A moment of subgenre nitpicking, which I promise is relevant, before moving on. Halting State is set in the near future, involves hacking and hackers, and features plenty of cyberspace capers, yet I refuse to call it cyberpunk. Why not? After all, what else could it be? Well, the obvious answers are thematic. Halting State takes place primarily in Edinburgh, which is better known for bad food, kilts, and claymores than for hard-edged techno-noir. There is also the jaunty nature of the story, which gets more serious than pixelated mischief, but stays just one step away from silly. The bad guys are also far from typical, but I can’t really talk about that without spoiling everything, so the discriminating reader will have to take my word for it. By themselves, these reasons aren’t necessarily sufficient; Snowcrash is a seminal cyberpunk work, but is loopy and hilarious. There is more to this, though a further detour is necessary to make my point.
It occurred to me early on in the book that I was reading a companion piece to the recent The Moon Maze Game. Both are mysteries with embedded games. Both have heroes that are gamers of one sort or another. Neither are cyberpunk, despite the trappings listed above. Despite these similarities, there is no mistaking one for the other; they couldn’t even take place in the same universe. The games, of course, are different. The Dream Park series is built on a logical extrapolation of LARP-ing and the SCA. (People running around with padded swords bashing on each other, with or without a plot.) The technology that Niven and Barnes cook up enables the games to continue in the Live Action realm, with all that entails. Stross, on the other hand, takes World of Warcraft and builds out a bigger and more impressive system of MMORPGs. The effects on the respective plots are clear, but I am more interested in the cause of the divergence, as it demonstrates a clear evolution of the science fiction landscape.
Western science fiction has long been intertwined with the twin touchstones of science and fandom. Larry Niven is, if not Golden Age, at least very old, predating New Wave, cyberpunk, the Space Opera Renaissance, and whatever else has happened in the last three decades. Science in Niven’s heyday meant physics and astronomy, and fans were, well, fans. Fast forward to the new century and the scene is different. SF is still tied to science and fans, but computer science joins the traditional disciplines and fans are now likely to be gamers as well. Why is this relevant to Halting State? Considering the author and audience, I think the book is best described as Hard SF. Niven and Barnes wrote their book following the old rules of Hard SF, but with the new generation of programmers, network admins, and security wonks, I think that Hard SF is changing before our eyes. Stross points the way here, with a cyberpunk-free book full of hackers, nerds, griefers, and virtual bankers. He explains virtual economies with the same care once given to FTL drives and neutron stars.
The rest of the book is hard to talk about without wandering far into spoiler territory. I may have to say that I love the identity and motivations of the “bad guys,” but leave it at that. There is one aspect of the book that demands attention. For whatever reason, Stross elected to have three viewpoint characters, but tell the story entirely in second person. I’m not sure why this is – I suspect that he made the call because it gives the book more of a game-like feel, with the reader as player. It may also just be his desire to do something unconventional. I know we all like unconventional stuff, but sometimes the conventions are there because they work. Not writing in second person definitely falls into that category. I confess to having an irrational hatred of second person, to having threatened my former students with fire and brimstone if they slipped even the smallest “you” into their research papers, and admit that it all may be clouding my judgment, but I really wish Stross had written this in an approved narrative voice. I had to actively ignore it and subdue my irritation until the story got exciting enough to override my revulsion.
Over-reliance on the word “you” aside, Halting State has much to recommend it. Like the Dream Park books discussed earlier, readers with strong feelings for and experience with computer games will probably enjoy the read more than others, but seeking out Charles Stross seems like a self-selecting process anyway. Enjoy the ride.
Rating: Oil sheiks taking over European clubs and changing the face of football.