Halting State

Man, a lot of these book reviews have been Charlie Stross haven't they? That's not on purpose, if anything I'd throw it at the feet of Stross being a fairly prolific author. Anyways, up today is Halting State.

Halting State is a standalone book and not tied to anything else he's written. I don't know if a sequel is planned but even if it is it seems likely to be years away with all the other series he has. I was curious to read it because online games are central to the plot and I wanted to see his take on the hobby.

Quick and hopefully unspoiler-y summary: In 2018 a police officer gets involved in an investigation of a virtual crime (a bank in an online game is robbed). We're quickly introduced to a company concerned with the virtual bank robbery and they assign a second character is to investigate and she gets partnered with a computer programmer/hacker who is supposed to be her tour guide to cyberspace. Of course, the whole thing is much more complicated than it seems on the surface and ultimately governments are involved and all sorts of double-crosses and backstabs happen.

I'd seen reviews mention an idea along the lines of "The Atrocity Archives played straight" and I think that's a good capsule review. You'd be hard pressed to pick Bob from TAA and the computer guy in HS out from a lineup and get them right 100% of the time. Of course, I like TAA so this shouldn't be considered a knock at all. I just think it is fair to say that if you liked TAA you'll like Halting State. If you couldn't deal with the occult or campy elements of TAA then maybe HS is more your speed. But it's definitely in the same vein as TAA as opposed to his further out stuff like Accelerando or Glasshouse, and it doesn't have the same "this is book one of a saga" feel of the Merchant Family series.

At a sheer mechanical level there was one thing I found a little odd. There are three viewpoints and it rotates every chapter but then it's told in second person. So it's written as "You do this" but then "you" changes every chapter. I understand the intent - it makes it read like interactive fiction (think "Zork") but it makes chapter changes jarring. Writing in second person is already unusual and then writing in second person with shifting POV? This is certainly the first time I've encountered that! It works, but I never got used to it and there was a little cognitive dissonance at each chapter break.

Overall I liked Halting State. It's much more accessible than some of Stross' more out there books, and he understands the gaming source material well enough that he doesn't make any major missteps. The biggest ding I can give it is the weird second person deal and that's a really minor point. If you like Stross or even if you'd like a book extrapolating gaming out ten years or so, I'd recommend giving Halting State a shot.