Halting State by Charles Stross

halting_state_large_UKHalting State by Charles Stross is set in the not too distant future. Scotland has devolved (in a political not Darwinian sense), gained independence, and the world is even more saturated with information technology and computer nerdiness than ever before. In an online game a load of orcs and a dragon rob a bank and nick a load of magic swords and armour and amulets and other valuable goodies.

At first you’d probably agree with one of the protagonists in thinking ‘So what, it’s a game’ but in fact the theft spells almost certain doom for the computer company that hosts the bank in the virtual game. As in life now, with games like World of Warcraft, these magical items go on sale for quite surprising money on auction sites. More importantly though, if people lose faith in the game a multi-million company can go down the crapper. These games are big money.

So that’s the plot. The start of it at least. As the Halting State goes on the stakes get increasingly higher as things develop. Western civilisation is at threat and people start to die. There are spies and assassinations and advanced technology and thrills aplenty.

The novel would score quite high on the nerd scale if there was such a thing. A Warp Factor 8.5 perhaps. It is full of computer techno/gamespeak. Being a bit of a spod myself, I was ok with the game stuff like MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game in case you care) but got a bit lost, and to be honest, mildly annoyed for the first couple of chapters with the sheer amount of ‘don’t I know a lot of acronyms’ and general geekness. Stross is doing this on purpose but it can be frustrating.

Another thing I thought might be annoying is the fact that all of Halting State is told in the ‘stream of consciousness’ style like the classic As I lay dying by William Faulkner (a bit boring) and the even more classic The Stud by Jackie Collins (a bit daft). In case you aren’t familiar with these literary gems – each chapter has a character’s name and it is told by that person. It doesn’t prove much of a problem here except occasionally for a Scots accent used by the police character. Which is done phonetically and unnecessarily and why I can’t be bothered to read Trainspotting. Stross can just say that the character has a Scots accent and then write normally. I can imagine the rest. It’s pretty rare here, so don’t worry.

Even more uniquely, the tale is told in the second person present. “You walk in a room” and “you are reading a superb review” sort of a thing. Initially my heart sank when I read this as I thought it would piss me off but I actually got quite into it. It really draws you in. I’m assuming that it is supposed to blur the boundaries between a classic writing style and games such as Dungeons and Dragons or the superb ‘choose your own adventure’ Fighting Fantasy books by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. Which were immensely popular with sad lonely types in the 80s when I was at school. (Deathtrap Dungeon rules by the way.)

I won’t give anything away, but while I found Halting State incredibly fun, witty, entertaining and exciting, it didn’t quite live up to what I had hoped. It felt slightly lacking by the end. I don’t know what I was expecting but it didn’t quite deliver.

It’s still worth a go though. You might like it. As I said, it’s fun if you’re a bit of geek and well written. Charles Stross is always good value.

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