Halting State, Charles Stross

Ace, 2007, 351 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01498-9

I love the feel of sizzling neurons in the evening.

People read Science Fiction far various reasons. I’m in it for the rush I get when SF knocks a few new ideas in my head, links them to the world at large and asks if I’m ready to deal with them. It’s a cognitive pleasure that is seldom seen elsewhere in fiction, and Charles Stross excels at it. Even when he’s dealing with occult horrors or dimension-hopping economies, Stross is never too far from the “use the future to think about the present” ethos of the best SF. With Halting State, Stross attempts the most dangerous game imaginable for SF writers: a near-future thriller.

It’s a risky dare, because it carries along its own metric for failure. Never mind that Stross isn’t attempting to be a futurist: a surprisingly large number of falsely sophisticated readers will read his novel as a grab-bag of predictions and pass judgement on how closely his extrapolations will match our real-world 2010s. And there are no ways to win at this game: The slightest errors will be highlighted, and what does survive may not be detectable from the then-mainstream. (There are surprisingly few rewards for being prescient in SF.) Halting State is a novel with an ever-closer examination date.

It seems, at first glance, like a departure from Stross’ three existing strands of fiction. It’s not far-future post-Singularity SF like Accelerando, it’s not occult horror/thriller like The Atrocity Archives and it’s not a fantasy of finance like the series launched with The Family Trade. But look closer, because the links with his other fiction are all over the place.

First, Stross is still fascinated by how economics shape our societies. The trigger to Halting State is theft. Virtual theft, as an attack on a bank set in a virtual role-playing game results in a police and insurance investigation. This may be virtual money theft, but it quickly has real-world consequences as the lead investigative team is assembled: A computer expert who knows on-line gaming, an insurance investigator who wields a mean sword and a police investigator who finds herself bemused by the whole case. These three characters each get alternating viewpoint chapters, rounding out our perspective on a case that becomes more complex than anticipated. Because this isn’t just a game.

And this is where Halting State takes off, as it riffs on the nature of reality and fantasy like the best of Stross’ SF work so far. The theft is the tip of a much deeper business, one that has links to the setting of the novel. As it turns out, Stross doesn’t set his novel in a newly-independent Scotland just for the local atmosphere. SF used to dream about how the real could shape the virtual, but the current crop of genre fiction (including William Gibson’s surprisingly similar Spook Country) is busy describing how both the real and the virtual interact until it all becomes one single augmented reality.

But this vertiginous realization comes with the understanding that virtual universes have been with us for a long time, and that “The Great Game” keeps extending its reach as computers end up forming part of our identity. That’s the point at which Halting State is revealed to be tightly linked to Stross’ “Laundry” espionage/horror series, and where his usual mixture of horror, humour and speculation finds its ultimate expression.

Stross keeps on getting better with each novel, and Halting State is a tour de force in many ways: Stylistically, it’s more audacious than it has any right to be with a second-person narration, but even that works after a while. Thematically, it vigorously explores Stross’ usual preoccupations. Narratively, it features a number of strong scenes and carefully-measured revelations. Conceptually, it proves that high speculation is not incompatible with near-future settings. It’s a good thing that Stross is able to temper his extrapolations with a heavy dose of humour, because some of the speculations in here are enough to drive anyone to full-blown paranoia (an approach explored in Ken MacLeod’s not-dissimilar The Execution Channel.)

So who said that SF was running out of future? There are more fresh ideas in this “near-future thriller” than in most “far-future science-fiction” published this year. Stross made a dangerous bet in looking at a future well within the lifetime of most readers, and it looks as if he’s well-placed to win. Even if reality catches up to this novel (and I’m hardly the only one who caught recent news of virtual bank thefts in Second Life), doesn’t it suggest that you too should read this novel as soon as possible?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *