January 15, 2008

Book review: "Halting State," by Charles Stross

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Halting State
By Charles Stross
Ace/Berkley / ISBN: 978-0-441-01498-9

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of science-fiction (or SF), and that one of the writers of the newest generation that I keep up with is master mind-screwer-upper Charles Stross, a multiple Hugo-nominated "writer's writer" who is greatly admired by the precise fellow writers who are his Hugo competition each year. In fact, just a couple of months ago I read and reviewed my first book of his, 2006's greatly admired Glasshouse, set 700 years in the future and dealing with all kinds of interesting topics like teleportation, replication, genetic engineering, the Singularity and more. It's easy in Glasshouse, I explained in my original essay, to see why Stross is such a favorite not only among the youngest generation of SF fans but also the very people who spend the largest amount of time thinking about that speculative genre; because he's what can be called a "hard SF" author, a meticulous researcher whose outrageous fictional concepts are always based on real events from our current times, endlessly inventive extrapolations of our current reality that only the most brilliant of our society can envision. Now add that Stross himself is personally interested in a lot of the hot-button topics of our Web 2.0 times -- copyleft, fascism, steampunk, DRM and more -- and you can easily see why he's a personal favorite of such much-more-known personalities as Cory Doctorow.

Halting State, by Charles Stross

And that's why I was so excited to spy his latest novel, autumn-2007's Halting State, on the "new book" shelf of my library recently; oh, it's always so exciting, isn't it, to spy a book at a library you know is going to be very popular and impossible to get ahold of soon, randomly one day before anyone else has spied it on the shelf. Ah, but then I read it, and realized the danger of Stross being the type of writer that he is, which to be fair is the same danger facing any hard-SF author; that even as their far-future tales tend to sparkle and ignite the imagination, their insistence on basing all story details on real technology tends to make their "world of tomorrow" tales a hacky mess, full of terms and concepts that are about two years out of date even when originally published, then aging with all the grace of Bill Clinton talking about setting up CyberZones on the Information Superhighway. And Halting State is a "world of tomorrow" novel, make no mistake, one rooted in the trendy technology of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) environments, not only such videogames as World of Warcraft but such "virtual realities" as Second Life; and as thrilling as an actioner based on this technology might be to the absolute nerdiest of us at this particular moment in history, I'm telling you right now that snotty hipsters in fifteen years will be reading this book for its ironic enjoyment, for the amount of times it makes them roll their eyes in awful/wonderful "Web 2.0 Fiction" delight.

But wait, what's that, you say? You don't quite understand what an MMO is? Well, you're going to need to in order to understand Halting State, which assumes from page 1 that if you're a reader you must be a geek, and therefore up on a certain amount of background information concerning such environments. And really, MMOs are not difficult to understand at their core; they're simply a 3D real-time computer-generated environment, like an extremely low-rent version of the Matrix, one where a million people can gather at once and interact just like they would in a city of a million people, an imaginary yet very real place where things occur and history moves forward whether or not you're there yourself. It is a brand-new technology, one just now invading the mainstream because of the profound rise of high-end computers and home broadband connections, a development that is best imagined as a technology platform more than anything else, a broad way of looking at the world that others then carve their little niches in afterwards, kinda like how the invention of movable type in the 1400s eventually led not only to newspapers but novels, pornography, ticker-tape machines and more.

It's important to understand this particular concept, of course, of an MMO environment being the technological backbone of a number of different kinds of projects, because this is precisely what Stross does in Halting State; he envisions a world set roughly 25 years from now, where society has finally embraced MMOs as a new communications platform unto itself, and where people have successfully implemented uses for MMO technology far beyond the gamey goals of most current online projects. In Stross' world, for example, the police themselves have their own MMO; in the near future, in fact, they've found that a 3D virtual world is a much more efficient way for officers in the field to exchange information with HQ than any other previous technology. The world of Halting State is one where such virtual environments are becoming more and more of the norm; a place that has finally invented an inexpensive way to "overlay" such virtual information onto the physical space we occupy (via smart glasses with their own online connections), essentially giving you all the power of Google in a 3D way even while walking around in the physical world.

Yeah, it's a cool concept to think about, right? Even cooler, in fact, because of a lot of what Stross is talking about here being things that will undoubtedly be coming true; like I said, as with most of his novels, all the concepts bandied about here are based on real things going on in the real world as we speak. And like I said, when it came to a far-future story like Glasshouse, this hard-SF extrapolation was a fascinating mindf--k that I couldn't get enough of; to cite just one detail that has still vividly remained in my mind, I absolutely loved how he took the concept of "linkrolls" found on personal blogs these days, and expanded it into the concept of galaxy-wide physical space via "hyperlink matter teleporters," so that like-minded individuals could basically build their own autonomous nations out of their own private estates, even with the estates themselves being scattered from one side of the universe to the other. I'm told that all of Stross' far-future work is like this, in fact, full of flabbergasting concepts that easily go three or four steps beyond what anyone else in his industry is thinking of these days, which of course is what makes him so respected among his fellow SF writers in the first place.

But like I said, there's a real danger to such authors writing a story set just a few years in the future, doing just a limited amount of thinking-ahead to what technology might have in store; and that's the danger of coming off as trendy, gimmicky and hacky, of unrealistically trumpeting certain technologies just because they're momentarily hot, essentially churning out a quickly-turned-around bestseller that within months can be found in the remainder bin of your favorite overpriced corporate superstore, and within years has been forgotten altogether. And sheesh, should we count all the ways that Stross is guilty of such a thing in Halting State? Between the virtual banks, the LARP-playing accountants, the breathless descriptions of blended reality and all the rest, this novel almost screams "I'm a proud stockholder of Intel computer chips, makers of the processors in the future that will transport you to a wondrous new virtual world!" And by the way, Stross, if you just happen to ever come across this review in the future; seriously, you're telling me that after all that intrigue and super-secret-virtual-agent stuff, the day is ultimately saved by a flash mob? A F--KING FLASH MOB? Seriously, Charles Stross, are you f--king kidding me? Cheese and Rice, I could barely stand those flash-mob people even in the late '90s when the public was most tolerant of their goofy performance-art antics; having them ultimately be the solution to the plot's final crisis is simply begging to be made fun of, as surely as Matthew Broderick almost starting World War Three over a 30-baud modem in the early-'80s trainwreck WarGames.

It was a real shame to discover, to tell you the truth, after becoming such an instant salivating fan of Stross because of Glasshouse; it's a shame to see that the very things that make him a mindblowing far-future writer are the same things making him a laughable near-future one. It makes me understand further why it is that Stross is known mostly among just SF aficionados, versus such early-career genre writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson who have ended up breaking out into a more mainstream audience; because when all is said and done, a penchant for guessing the future is a different thing than being a great overall writer, and that the former skill can get you far within the insular world of SF but the latter will always stop you from achieving more. It's my unfortunate duty to report that Stross quite badly missed the mark with Halting State, as unfortunately do most books these days about the infinitely complex subject of MMOs; it cuts him down more to size, for those like me who had been previously worshipping him, makes him much more obviously a mid-career genre writer who still needs some basic polishing lessons on such topics as dialogue and exposition. I'll keep reading Stross to be sure, and will also definitely be going back and reading his entire back catalog; I'll definitely be reading it all, though, with a much more skeptical eye.

Out of 10:
Story: 5.7
Characters: 3.9
Style: 6.9
Overall: 6.6

Read even more about Halting State: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:13 PM, January 15, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |