Tuesday, March 04 2008

Halting State

I've taken a break from anime and painting to catch up on my reading, getting through several books that had accumulated in my 'to read' list.  I had difficulty putting down Halting State by Charles Stross, and not because I'd gotten glue on my hands building miniatures.

I've read Stross's more traditional sci-fi novels Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, and found them to be entertaining and worth a read, but not great.  I also enjoyed The Atrocity Archives despite my aversion to the whole horror genre.  Halting State was an impulse buy;  I recognized Stross's name but couldn't place any actual books he had written until I went home and checked the bookshelf.  It was the plot summary in the book jacket that drew me in: in the near future, a police officer must investigate a bank robbery conducted in a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game).


The summary, while not lying, doesn't actually convey the book's plot.  I was expecting something like a modernized version of Larry Niven's Dream Park, where the game is the focus of the plot.  It doesn't quite work out that way, probably for the best.  While a bit of the plot does take place in a virtual world, most of the story takes place firmly in the real world, and the game is only a small component of the overall plot.  The book is actually more a look at a possibility of what a future where society, culture, economics, and business are all networked together.  It's not about the technology, which is not at all far-fetched, but at the effects of linking all the information networks that exist today together and integrating them more thoroughly into people's daily lives.

It's interesting to see this book as representing another facet of 'cyberpunk' (for lack of a better word) science fiction.  William Gibson and Shirow Masamune separately look at the technology layer of information technology;  how changes in hardware, from computers to cybernetics, will change the world.  Neil Stephenson looks at the power of ideas and memes at what might be the wetware layer of information technology;  how individual ideas will change the world.  In this book, Stross looks at the power of networks to control and route information, in a sense bridging the gap between hardware and wetware.  (In a sense, this is a simplification.  Stephenson does cover hardware, especially nanotech in the excellent Snow Crash, while Shirow and Gibson do get into the level of ideas and minds.)

Another thing I love about this book is that Stross effectively combines a number of different interests of mine into the story.  At the detail level, there are references to both electronic gaming and tabletop roleplaying games, spy fiction, technology at the programming and business levels, geek culture, and even anime.  Stross also sounds like he at least partially understands most of what he's referencing;  the jokes seem natural, not forced.  The overall plot combines a healthy technothriller intrigue story with a mystery and a science-fiction look at the possibilities of technology.  Furthermore, the plot isn't preachy or too obviously cliche, and the technology fits into the story well and doesn't require tedious explanation of how it works.  The intrigue is well done, with a story formed from multiple plots working at cross-purposes leading to a couple of surprises.  (Stross combined genres even better in The Atrocity Archive, mixing black IT humor, spy fiction, and Lovecraftian horror into an incredible tapestry.  If only I didn't loathe the horror genre...)

Overall, this is one of the best books I've read in quite some time.  It did take me some time afterwards to get the title, however, so I'm slowing down a bit...

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 50 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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