Review of Halting State by Charles Stross
by Charles Stross
There is a new buzzword making the rounds these days: gamification. It refers to the trend of turning quotidian tasks into games. Usually the end goal of the game maker is profit, of course, but often gamification has benefits for the players—it turns an otherwise boring or dull task into something fun. CBC’s Spark has explored gamification. They’ve also interviewed Jane McGonigal, who has some interesting ideas about how gaming is changing our society. (She also has a book I intend to read but had forgotten to add to my list until now! She was on The Colbert Report recently.)
But I digress. I bring up gaming and gamification because it seems like an appropriate way to examine Halting State. In the 2018 of this book, Scotland has gained independence, and gamification has saturated Scottish society. Mashups and crowdsourced reviews have become the go-to source for information and recommendations. Augmented reality is also in full bloom, with police using googles to look up information and communicate via an AR layer called “CopSpace”. (Do not view this as far-fetched: Brazil is rolling out facial recognition glasses for the World Cup—although it remains to be seen whether they work as well as advertised.) World of Warcraft-style MMORPGs are popular and profitable, with entire companies existing solely to manage their economies. Hayek Associates is one such company, until an in-game bank robbery that should have been impossible.
Halting State is a slippery chimera of a novel. It begins as a straightforward mystery, or as straightforward as a mystery can be when the perpetrators are orcs in the world of Avalon 4. Sue Smith is the Edinburgh cop on the case, but she quickly finds herself in over her head. This proves to be a recurring motif throughout the book, which quickly morphs from mystery to thriller as Elaine and Jack enter the story. Elaine is an auditor—the exact relationship of her firm with Hayek eludes me now, nearly a week after reading the book, but she goes in to investigate in the wake of this robbery on behalf of her clients (who are, I believe, insurers). Jack is the programming whizkid she hires to be her “native guide” through the system. Eventually this unlikely trio uncovers the truth behind the Hayek heist—and it is neither pretty nor simple. That’s when Halting State undergoes its final metamorphosis into a story of espionage and intrigue.
Whether one is willing to follow the book as it undergoes these transitions will ultimately determine the extent of one’s enjoyment. I quite enjoyed Halting State’s opening, its milieu and mood and sense of mystery. Its final form of a spy thriller was less interesting for me. As with many such books, Halting State makes use of the conspiracy-implicit idea that the main characters, having seemingly been thrown together by chance, were actually manipulated into meeting and groomed to play their roles from the very beginning. It takes some of the excitement out of the novel for me—also, I feel this trope is rather overused. And while I’d like to say good things about Stross’ characterization—I did like Sue and Elaine and Jack—it just seems all over the map. (For example, Jack has this weird but trivial criminal record that seems entirely irrelevant to the plot or even to him as a character.)
So in this way Halting State is quite similar to how I felt about the plot of Singularity Sky. The latter had the benefit of including very well-realized and cool ideas about AI, the Singularity, quantum communication, wormholes, and time travel. It was also wider in scope, which any issues with characterization less of an issue. Halting State’s focus on near-future gamification isn’t nearly as interesting. Stross sets the scene well. The idea of someone stealing information in a game in order to make a profit in the real world is clever, and it underscores how we will have to remain flexible in our ideas of what business and commerce mean in the era of digital gaming. And sure, even when that turns out to be a red herring, the real threat to Europe’s infrastructure is still a crypto-geek’s nightmare. There is no question that Stross excels at demonstrating the implications our dependence on networked technology have for how our governments and societies function at their most basic levels. This skill is what keeps me reading even when the story itself is lacklustre.
Then there is the elephant in the room, the one glaring attribute of Halting State that I have yet to mention. This book is narrated entirely in second-person. Judging from other reviewers, your mileage may vary; I didn’t really notice after the first few pages. I have encountered maybe one other book (not that I can name it) that uses this device, and I can see how it would aggravate some people or entice others. (I suspect my brain just decided to translate it all into third-person, which is why I did not have any trouble. Go my brain!)
I don’t mean to damn Halting State with faint praise. As far as the story goes, it grabbed me and made me want to finish reading. That’s an excellent quality for a story to have—but it’s far from sufficient to make a story great. Although I found it enjoyable, I don’t think I will find Halting State particularly memorable.