In 2018, a daring bank robbery takes place at Hyak Associates. However, this is no ordinary robbery, being executed by a band of marauding orcs with a dragon as backup in the online game world of Avalon Four. The robbery was supposed to be impossible as the data exists in multiple locations, each checking the others to ensure integrity. That it happens at all leads to some serious questions about the network underlying the future Earth.
Edinburgh constable Sue Smith is called on to investigate and must join forces with Elain Barnaby, a forensic accountant, and Jack Reed, an unemployed game programmer to figure out what happened and what is going on behind the scenes.
While at first glance Halting State may sound like a modern day take on Dreampark, the action doesn’t take place in a game, but in the ‘real’ world. Having said that, Halting State is a darn good read, especially if you are a techie or an online game player.
The first thing you’ll notice when reading Halting State is that the entire book is written in the second person. This can be rather odd, as Stross changes characters every chapter and ‘you’ change gender frequently. However, given the subject matter of virtual reality and gaming, this is a genius device to bring the feeling that ‘you’ are actually playing the game as detailed in the story. ‘You’ do everything here, all the interactions and events happen to ‘you’. The only disconnect is that, unlike a ‘real’ game, ‘you’ don’t actually get to influence the outcome, it’s more like ‘you’ are involved in a movie of the game of Halting State. Still, it’s an interesting way to get you interested in the story.
And what a story. Stross has created a future where tech has invaded every aspect of life, including RFID in clothes, realistic VR games and wireless net connectivity everywhere. Sure, these tropes have been used before, but Stross takes their interactions and affects on life to a whole other level. Think Accelerando, only in a near future Earth. Stross also peppers the story with a wry, dark sense of humor that lends itself well to the ‘gaming’ feeling of the story. If you are a tech junkie, like myself, or are into video games at all, like myself, Halting State is like a trip to the Apple store (or game store), filled with all sorts of shiny things that make you say, “Cool!”. Stross obviously has a keen grasp of tech and gaming culture and is able to use this to create a very realistic feeling future world.
However, because the tech used in the story is different from today, the reader doesn’t have a good grasp on how or why things work, or the implications for society. Couple that with the second person narrative, and ‘you’ don’t really have the ability to figure out what’s going on because ‘you’ haven’t grown up in the Halting State world. This leads to the unfortunate use of info dumps at the end of the story to describe what the reasons where for the bank heist (think Chinese gold farmers on steroids) and why it constitutes a threat to the ‘net’s integrity. The ending also ties up a bit to neatly, although you have to like a book that uses a flash mob of zombies in its resolution. There is also a lot of jargon tossed out that could overwhelm someone who isn’t into tech or gaming.
Even with a somewhat disappointing ending, Halting State is well worth it for the tech junkies and gaming fans among us. I think the story is still a fine one even if you don’t fit those two categories, but be prepared to work at understanding the jargon inHalting State.