Halting State by Charles Stross

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Halting State by Charles Stross

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Some time in the near future the virtual world and Edinburgh reality collide with some serious collateral damage. It won’t appeal to everyone – a very specific sense of humour is required – along with the ability to accept you won’t necessarily understand a fair chunk of what you’re reading. It’s still funny.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: September 2008
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841496658

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So there you are, reading this book and you’re just about getting to grips with the low-level jargon and abbreviations (by skipping over several of those you can’t decipher). You’re beginning to forgive them for being Scottish, since most of the good cop-shows and cop-reads are – and, like Shakespeare, the rhythm settles into your brain after a few pages – though you will possibly change your mind when you discover 300 pages later the setting’s sole purpose might just be to get the Leith police joke to work.

Even the shoutey bold capitals are only mildly irritating.

No. What’s really annoying you is the fact that the whole thing is written in this second person style. You are, to all intents and purposes, Sergeant Sue Smith – lumbered for the day with probationary Constable Bob Lockhart, and the lucky soul who gets to deal with the grade four robbery call-out.

Except… you’re not. By chapter two, you’ve morphed into Elaine – a London-based forensic accountant with a thing for mediaeval sword-play of the very physical kind.

Until… you’re Jack. Stoned and lost in Amsterdam. Stoned, drunk, newly redundant and, to be fair, not so much lost as ‘abandoned-by-your-humourous-mates’ in Amsterdam. Cue one arrest, night in the cells, lucky-escape-type fine and a sharp exit.

The “second person” voice does take an awful lot of getting used to, especially if you can’t quite remember who you’re supposed to be at this point. Then again, if you’re used to role-play games, especially the on-line variety, then you’ll be used having several personas (I’d hate to suggest you have multiple personalities).

If you’re not used to such games…your enjoyment of this book might not materialise.

The cop-shout is to a robbery of a bank. Problem is: that bank is located in the citadel on the Island of Valiant Dreams that floats above the Lake of the Lost in the foothills of the Nether Mountains in Avalon Four. The raid was carried out by some unusually disciplined Orcs (assisted by a fully loaded dragon).

And just in case you were wondering (as Sue clearly was) “Avalon Four” IS a computer game.

What’s been taken is a whole load of treasure-type stuff that Hyaek Associates who run the ‘banks’ for gaming companies keep such stuff ‘on deposit’ as a way of siphoning some of the ‘virtual money’ out of the virtual reality, which is apparently necessary to keep the fun factor going. It is all fully explained and it did remind me of my undergraduate Economics lectures – to the extent that it all sort of makes sense at the time, but you surely hope they ain’t gonna be asking questions later.

Already in the first chapter, you’re thinking: I don’t get this. Or perhaps that’s just me. I didn’t.

But like some of the characters in the story, I found I couldn’t walk away either. The robbery turns out to be a virtual – but also a very real crime. Real people are going to lose really serious money as a result…and that’s before the Spooks get involved and people start turning up missing, or dead.

Stross is a very quirky writer, but he does know how keep you entranced. On one level this is a straightforward police procedural, although the procedure is all tied up in this future-world technology. It’s simply a crime and you have to figure out whodunit before the detectives do. On another it’s a sharp insight into where the world might be headed on the technological front: driverless taxis, the cops wired up to their own network, statements filmed and recorded, head-up displays being used by everyone to access maps, restaurant reviews, nice shiny arrows over the heads of ASBO recipients. On the third, it’s a highly amusing sideswipe as to where we’ve got to already in our dependence upon our gadgets and alternative universes.

Highly amusing? Hmmm. I think so. I was amused. What I can’t figure out is whether it would be more or less funny if I actually understood half of what Stross is saying.

Of the main characters only Jack is really a gamer (& a programmer) the others teeter around various edges of it, which gives every excuse to explain in detail the theory behind what has happened – and the implications it has: not just for the ill-fated Hyaek Associates, but for National Security, Scottish independence, the future of Europe and a few people a bit closer to home. The explanations are a sheer delight. Do they make sense? No idea – go ask a geek! To a lover of words and language manipulation, they simply sound cool. There are parts I am 100% sure are pure invented gobbledy… other bits, I don’t know: could be perfectly rational and happening already.

Of course this does mean that you need to have a particular sense of humour to engage with the script. Many readers will simply find it silly. Which is a bit of a shame, because alongside the future-world, techno-gamers wet-dream stuff, our author slips in some wonderful old-fashioned word play.

I enjoyed the updated image of the sh*te coming out the aircon. There’s a wonderful point-by-point lesson in how to deal with ‘swoop-&-squat’ car insurance claims against you – a fair amount of which is infinitely transferable. The half-empty/half-full glass conundrum is converted into accountant-speak and engineering solution. But mostly the whole adventure is told in that sublimely colourful turn of phrase that the ex-industrial areas (Glasgow, Newcastle, South Wales) seem to excel at – and which only seems to work in context.

Literary and filmic references from the worlds of fantasy, Sci-Fi and the on-line-gaming abound, with affectionate salutes for the most part.

One of the serious points that Stross makes in the story is that a time traveller landing in this near-future Edinburgh would recognise the place. The world looks the same as it did forty, fifty or a hundred years ago. It just works differently. The illustrations he uses to explain what he means pulled me up short, as he takes some examples from the 1980s and 1990s and you (I) suddenly realise how much things really have changed since then. It all does look the same…so that time doesn’t feel so long ago. But he’s right. It all works differently now.

Side analyses on the point at which war really does become futile, Scottish independence, and who the superpowers will be in the post-industrial world all pale into despondency against the fact that people won’t change…and we won’t learn.

A very intelligent read.


This book is one of a kind and has the makings of creating the same kind of cult following as the work of the late great Douglas Adams. Rather than going for one of his classic books you might enjoy The Salmon of Doubt published after his unexpected death. For another - if less humourous - takes on near-fantasy with a strong Internet element - look to Pattern Recognition or Spook Country. You might also enjoy Freeks by Amanda Hocking.

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Buy Halting State by Charles Stross at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Halting State by Charles Stross at Amazon.com.


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Magda said:

I now simply HAVE to read this one to make up my own mind. Your reviews tend to do it to me!