Review: Halting State by Charles Stross

4 07 2008

At Circus Smirkus Camp, I worked with an aerialist who would tell campers when introducing a particularly painful stretch, “New stretches don’t hurt. They’re new and exciting!”

Halting State, by Charles Stross, is new and exciting. It’s different from anything I’ve read before, simply because the narrative is written in second person rather than third or first person. Instead of introducing you to the thoughts of an outsider, or letting you see through a protagonist’s eyes, Stross puts you through the story, tells you the manic jumble of tangential thoughts that you are experiencing right then and there—as if you are a character in his world. It is a mad experiment that seems to work, and in fact probably carries the book.

The year is 2018 and you are either or all at once Sue the police officer, Elaine the forensic accountant, or Jack the computer programmer. Extrapolate current online gaming culture to a future with easy wearable computing and fast distributed networks. Everyone has a head-up display (a la Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, or Elizabeth Bear’s Undertow), everyone is playing one game or another. Only, some games are more reality-based than others. When an online bank gets robbed, the effects reverberate through the real world.

Halting State is a bold and refreshing take on narrative storytelling, which happens to be set in the exciting world of computer crime. It adds a new skin on subjects that many authors have touched before. Books like the Dream Park novels by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, parts of the Otherland series by Tad Williams, and even Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson come to mind.

Aside from being difficult to follow at times (because of the experimental structure), the novel suffers from the a few of the frustrating afflictions that one sees in other science fiction. Everything turns into an international terrorist plot, with the characters mingling with super-double-secret organizations to beat the Bad Guys, as well as the burning desire to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s and tie up loose ends with a final chapter of exposition. The characters suddenly gain lucidity they didn’t have and always seem to be able to make the right decision at the end and be redeemed.

Halting State does drive home one sad fact about the current gaming industry. Most games that see mass-market are based more on business models and earning potentials than innovation and good gameplay. In the future Stross creates for the industry, things do not seem much better.

At the end I found myself thoroughly satisfied. This is definitely not a book to rush through, but to savor the many delightful moments that make any geek giggle. Stross is not only a mad genius but also a sharp, witty writer, producing philosophical gems such as, “If only families came with safewords, like any other kind of augmented-reality game.” The book isn’t perfect‚ in fact, it probably rides mainly on the strength of its new narrative approach, but it makes for a fun read, and I highly recommend it.

I’ve still got to read Brasyl, by Ian McDonald. Three more days!

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3 responses

8 07 2008
My Hugo Votes (2008) « Conventioneers!

[…] Halting State is first because it was the most exciting story of the four I read. It was also the most daring, breaking literary conventions by narrating completely in second person—and yet was still readable, even enjoyable. Highly enjoyable. I don’t necessarily think it will win, but it’s my first choice, because Stross took real risks and managed to produce something worthwhile and insightful, as I said earlier. […]

8 07 2008
Lee

In case you weren’t aware, second person POV is unusual, but has been used before and by some fairly major novelists:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second-person_narrative

I’ve liked what I read of Stross so far, but… my willingness to read challenging literature varies inversely with how complicated the rest of my life is plus how much I want to be working on my own writing. I certainly do envy you your ability to challenge yourself on a routine basis! Long may you rampage through life! :)

9 07 2008
Jacob

I assumed it wasn’t unique, but it definitely isn’t common. I think this is the first time I’ve read a book that is entirely second person, though. I was impressed.

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