Author: Charles Stross
352 pages • £10.99
If there’s one thing that science fiction doesn’t do very well, it’s predict the future. SF literature is already scattered with alternate tomorrows that have resolutely failed to happen, and it’s understandable why many authors now aim their stories into the far distant future – partly for creative freedom, and partly so they’ll be centuries dead before anyone’s likely to say, “Blimey! They really got the year 3278 wrong, didn’t they?”
As a result, one of the riskiest things a modern SF author can attempt is writing about the immediate future, especially with the difficult-to-predict way technology is evolving around us… which makes what Charles Stross has achieved with Halting State even more remarkable. Proving there really isn’t a genre he can’t bend to his own ends, he’s taken the potentially creaky world of the near-future thriller and given it a combined injection of reality and attitude.
He’s also come up with one of the weirdest heists in literary history, a tale that kicks off in Scotland circa 2017, when police sergeant Sue Smith is called in to investigate a robbery at Hayek Associates, a company overseeing a gigantic online roleplaying game called Avalon Four. The big problem? The robbery was actually committed by a gang of Orcs inside the game itself, an act that might be enough to derail the game’s economy and wipe millions of Euros from Hayek Associates’ share price.
We’re already in the world of insider trading, but when it’s discovered that Hayek’s most important programmer has not only vanished, but may never have actually existed in the first place, the multi-stranded plot catapults Smith and our two other leads (forensic accountant Elaine Barnaby and programmer Jack Reed) into a world of tangled economies, espionage, and a potentially cataclysmic information war that could have global consequences...
Stross can rattle off brain-warping ideas like a machine gun, and Halting State is full to the brim with invention – but he also knows information technology like the back of his hand, and there’s barely a moment in this sprightly thriller that doesn’t feel thoroughly believable. From the remote-control taxis piloted by “out-sourced” drivers in India, to the interactive game Spooks that gives anyone the chance to be a genuine spy, it’s full of creations that reflect where our current techno-heavy culture could be heading, and asks serious questions about how far our online lives could go.
The downside of this is that Stross’s ferocious invention can sometimes get the better of him. Thanks to Halting State’s jargon-heavy approach, there are sections where having a working knowledge of games like World of Warcraft or environments like Second Life is a definite advantage, while the earnest discussion of the evolution of our digital world does occasionally start tripping up the mechanics of the main plotline. On top of this, he’s also attempted a left field stylistic trick by writing the entire book from a roleplay-style second-person perspective (where everything is told via “you” rather than “I”), which does take some getting used to.
Thankfully, none of this prevents Halting State from being a hugely entertaining page-turner shot through with a distinctly Scottish sense of humour. With enough twists and turns to keep any traditional thriller fans more than satisfied, it doesn’t even matter whether or not Stross’s eerily convincing prophecies about 2017 come true. It’s what Halting State says about today that’s important, so ignore the mainstream trappings and dive in – this is as pure and entertaining a piece of full-on science fiction as you can get.