Charles Stross, Halting State [Library of Babel]

I really, really did not like Glasshouse, Charlie Stross's Hugo-nominated novel from last year. I enjoy his "Laundry" books, though (The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue), and at Worldcon I had a conversation with Robert Sneddon, who recommended the forthcoming Halting State as closer in tone to those, so I picked it up a few weeks ago.

Halting State carries back-cover blurbs from three people: 1) Vernor Vinge, 2) John Carmack, lead developer of Doom and Quake, and 3) Bruce Schneier, the noted security expert. That pretty much tells you what you're going to get right there: a highly detailed near-future thriller built around Internet security protocols.

Halting State alternates between three point-of-view characters, all called in to deal with a single crime. Sue Smith is a cop in Edinburgh who gets called in to deal with a bank robbery, only it turns out that the robbery took place in the virtual world of Avalon Four, a Warcraft-like gaming world, where a bunch of orcs with a dragon in tow knocked over a bank and stole a bunch of powerful magic items. This isn't supposed to be possible, and promises dire consequences for the company running the game.

Elaine Barnard is a forensic accountant brought in by the game company's insurance company to look over the books and see what's going on. She has some limited experience with virtual reality gaming, but not on the technical side, so she requests a "native guide," and gets Jack Reed, a down-on-his-luck game programmer and enthusiast hired through a temp agency.

Of course, it quickly turns out that there's more to the crime than meets the eye. The bank job is a threat not just to the integrity of Avalon Four, but computers in general, and our protagonists quickly find themselves drawn into a shadowy world of spies, people who might be spies, and people who really are spies, but don't know it. The thriller plot is very clever, reasonably plausible, and well executed.

Of course, Charlie being Charlie, there are a few hiccups:

For one thing, the entire book is done in second-person present: "You're four hours into your shift, decompressing from two weeks of working nights..." There isn't any really compelling reason for this-- I suspect it's intended to tie in with the virtual gaming theme, as a kind of Zork tribute ("You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike"), or something, but it feels sort of like a stunt. The other second-person-present novel I've read recently-- Shetterly's Gospel of the Knife-- managed to give a really good explanation on the final page for why the book was written that way, so I may have unreasonable expectations, but it was a little too cute, here.

The bigger problem, though, is that the narrators are not particularly distinct. If you're going to do the alternating-viewpoints thing, the reader needs to be able to tell them apart quickly, and, well, they all sound kind of the same. More to the point, they all sound kind of like Charlie. Sue's dialogue has a little bit of "dinna ken" Scottish dialect to it, but other than that, you pretty much have to figure out whose eyes your looking through based on which other characters get referred to by name. It's a real weakness in the book.

It's also a pretty talky book. It's nowhere near as bad as Glasshouse because it's not trying to be satirical, but there are plenty of scenes in which characters explain things to one another at some length. Which only exacerbates the "everybody sounds like Charlie" problem, because you wonder why they have to bother.

In the end, this was... pretty good. The writing quirks keep it from being really excellent, but it wasn't actively painful, the way Glasshouse was. If this ends up on the Hugo ballot-- and I suspect it will-- I won't be outraged. I wouldn't vote for it, but I wouldn't be outraged.

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I'm currently trying to read Stross' "Accelerando" and so far, I find it enormously annoying. Maybe this is an indication that I'm not really a "hard" science fiction fan, but I find it tedious that every paragraph seems stuffed to the brim with gee-whiz technology, geek political rants, name-dropping references to philosophers, scientists, and business tycoons. It's too much, and not particularly interesting.

And so far, I detest the main character. I suppose he's supposed to be a good guy, but he's not someone I'd actually want to hang out with. Or read about, for that matter.

Another author who is similar in some ways is Vernor Vinge, but I don't find him anywhere near as annoying. "Rainbow's End" was the same sort of geeky near-future hard science novel, and I guess I had a similarly negative reaction at first, but it got better.

Second-person? Pretty much a deal-breaker there, I think.

I fiddled with second-person command-tense in a short story while in college and can't imagine that being sustained throughout an entire novel. It's fun for a tableau-like thing, guiding the reader through a setting and all that (and extremely jarring when the POV character gets killed at the end), but it's so limiting otherwise.

Color me dubious about this one.

By G Barnett (not verified) on 07 Nov 2007 #permalink

Kate @2: I wouldn't call it True Love, but they eventually learn to like each other a lot.

The similarity in viewpoint wouldn't be a problem in a movie. Halting State seems the most filmable Stross novel yet. What do you think?

Hm, I wonder how hard it would be to mechanically translate second-person to first-person or vice versa. Like, get an eBook copy of this and feed it through a perl script. Problem solved!

Hi Daryl,
I just wanted to comment that I don't think that Stross is a "Hard Science" fiction writer unless he's talking about abstract computing concepts. He's kind of a gonzo, in-your-face, comic-book-esque writer. If you are interested in well written prose and true "Hard Science" Fiction, I'd pick up Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy. I've even had some luck reading Alastair Reynolds "Revelation Space". Just my two-cents.

With Stross, I had a "meh" reaction to "Accelerando" and "Glasshouse." Some interesting sections and ideas, but I finished both without caring too much about them. "Singularity Sky" and "Iron Sunrise" were both fun sci-fi-spy novels, and "A Colder War" is quite good.

I'm going to side w/ Lance against Daryl, and second Lance's recommendations. Reynolds' space operas move faster (if you gloss over his astrophysics), but Robinson writes a good eco-political history.