Friday, May 15

Halting State - Charles Stross

When police are called in to investigate a robbery they discover something completely out of their experience - not only in the theft significant, it's virtual. Orcs broke into an Avalon Four bank, backed by a dragon for "fire support" and stealing thousands of dollars worth of virtual prestige items.
Underlying the robbery is information that could not only destroy the creators and financiers of Avalon Four, a massively multiplayer online role -playing game, and virtual gaming as a whole but for the whole European Union. Someone has compromised the cryptographic keys that form the backbone of all electronic information. In 2018 that means almost everything.
I'm not usually a big fan of cyberpunk novels, but Halting State was mesmerising - even as I glossed over the tech I read on. To give you a taste:
Most modern multiplayer games run on a couple of distributed-processing platforms - Zone runs on Symbian/GDF and Microsoft Arena runs on.NETSpace - and they've standardized on a common client engine... So, you've got out-of-band merchant sites like IGE and eBay's Gameboard, and a whole bunch of coyotes who make their living by providing tools to migrate avatars from one environment to another, using the exit game assets as arbitrage against a position in the entry game.
The novel is structured in three sequential internal trilogies, from the points of view of Sue (an Edinburgh detective), Elaine (an insurance investigator) and Jack (a recently fired programmer). What makes Halting State's style particularly interesting is that it's written in third person throughout, with the exception of internal monologues which are first person. This is amazingly difficult to carry off and Stross has managed seamlessly through the whole, lengthy novel. The writing is dense but compelling and there's an abundance of information not only about the plot and character development but also about the world in which it occurs. Only a decade ahead from the present, virtual reality has infiltrated every aspect of life, in ways both fascinating and (no the less technical, like me) frightening. Combined with the futuristic aspects are a truly Scottish sensibility, rich with local idiom and tradition. My previous experience with Scots and Scottish literature meant I found this added a layer of richness to the already substantial presentation, but it could be confusing for some readers, particularly - I suspect - Americans.
In summary - very different from my usual fodder but interesting. I'll definitely try another of Stross' works in the near future. - Alex

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