Sunday, June 27, 2010

Halting State

Halting State by Charles Stross
Penguin Group, 2007
Hardcover, 351 pages
ISBN-13: 9780441016075
Science Fiction
highly recommended

In the year 2018, a daring bank robbery has taken place at Hayek Associates. The suspects are a band of marauding orcs, with a dragon in tow for fire support, and the bank is located within the virtual reality land of Avalon Four. But Sergeant Sue Smith discovers that this virtual world robbery may be linked to some real world devastation.
My Thoughts:

Halting State is a cyberpunk techno-crime thriller. The chapters alternate between the point of view of three people: Edinburgh's Sgt. Sue Smith, insurance accountant Elaine Barnaby, and programmer Jack Reed. Basically, a virtual reality game has had its bank robbed. The police were mistakenly called, and, subsequently, while they are investigating an insurance company also becomes involved. The crime, however, is not what it appears to be.

This near future where everyone and everything is wired 24/7 seems plausible, especially based on the overwhelming amount of current technology and the way we use it to always keep ourselves plugged-in now (email, IM, twitter, facebook, cell phones, texting, GPS, bluetooth technology, earbuds, i-phones, blackberries, etc.) We have phones that aren't just phones, they are cameras, computers, GPS devices... and more. Picturing a future world where our technology opens us to a new kind of crime or sabotage is conceivable.

I'm not a gamer, however, and I'll admit to feeling a little lost and bewildered while reading Halting State. The book is written in the second person, which, apparently according to Publisher's Weekly, is "the authoritative second-person style of video game instructions." Stross uses some techno-jargon and Scottish dialect that could throw some readers off. I found the dialect easy but much of the techno-jargon baffling. While the basic plot was well conceived and the twist surprised me, I'm just not the virtual gamer coding monkey that will truly understand everything Stross has written in Halting State. I know one, though, so I'm passing the book on to him. I have no idea how to rate this one, but since I thought the end was surprising I'm going with highly recommended, unless my cyberpunk expert tells me differently.


It’s a grade four, dammit. Maybe it should have been a three, but the dispatcher bumped it way down the greasy pole because it was phoned in as a one and the MOP who’d reported the offence had sounded either demented, or on drugs, or something – but definitely not one hundred per cent in touch with reality. So they’d dropped it from a three ("officers will be on scene of crime as soon as possible") to a four ("someone will drop by to take a statement within four hours if we’ve got nothing better to do"), with a cryptic annotation ("MOP raving about Orcs and dragons. Off his meds? But MOP 2 agreed. Both off their meds?"). pg. 4

You shake your head and climb out of the car, tapping your ear-piece to tell your phone to listen up: "Arriving on SOC, time-stamp now. Start evidence log." It’s logging anyway – everything you see on duty goes into the black box – but the voice marker is searchable. It saves the event from getting lost in your lifelog. pg. 7

This is getting out of hand. "What was stolen?" you ask, pitching your voice a bit louder.
"Everything in the central bank!" It’s Webster. At last, you think, someone who gives simple answers to simple questions.
"Central bank where, on the high street?" You can’t be sure while you’re offline, but you don’t think there are any banks at this end of Drum Brae—
"Show her the video," Hackman says wearily. "It’s the only way to explain." pg. 12

"This is the central bank. Our task is to keep speculation down, and effectively to drain quest items and magic artefacts from the realm to prevent inflation. One way we do this is by offering safe deposit services to players: Avalon Four runs a non-persistent ownership mode so you can lose stuff if you’re killed on a quest and respawn, and the encumbrance rules are tight." pg. 14

"So why did you call us?" you ask. "It seems to me this is all internal to your games, aye? And you're supposed to be the folks who stop players from" - you shrug, searching for words - "arsing about with virtual reality. Right?" Wasting Polis time is an offence, but somehow you don't think the skipper would thank you for charging this shower. pg. 17

"This isn't just a hacking incident, it's insider trading." pg. 18

Mike asking you to help with Sally's fraudulent car claim is a bit like calling in an air strike to deal with a primary-school bully; but he's your friend, and besides, if anyone in the office notices and makes a fuss, you can point out that it's good public relations. pg. 25

The mess defederalization has left the country in has really come home to roost this decade: What the cooked books give, the cooked books taketh away. pg. 42

[B]etween you and Mitch and Budgie, you're three of the four corners of the former Social Networking Architecture Team, and you've flown out here on a budget shuttle from Turnhouse to get falling-down legless.... because god help you, it's better than remembering how badly you've been shafted. pg. 27

You're still busy trying to get your flight home, and your glasses can't keep up with the flashy graphical interface the airline uses: Cookies keep timing out and your session resets itself. The bandwidth is crap here, and the whole scene has turned out to be one gigantic bummer. You want home, and you're dying for that train back to Schiphol: You'd hoped to get away from the whole STEAMING mess once and for all, but the dying snake of a crashed and burning game plan has trapped you in its coils, and it feels like it's choking the life out of you. You really need to go home and get a job interview nailed down.
You wonder who your next corporate master is going to be. pg. 53

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