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Halting State UK cover

Halting State US cover

Many years ago you read an interesting short story, in an SF anthology edited by George Hay, that was written in the second person (Perry A. Chapdelaine's "Someday You'll Be Rich!" in The Disappearing Future). It was an unusual conceit, and it worked—just—at short length. Now you're sent a novel for review, and you open it and find that the entire thing is written in the second person—in fact, in three separate voices of the second person. And you wonder: Why?

To be honest, it's hard work keeping that going, so I'll stop now. It's a pain to write, and once the initial frisson of difference has worn off it becomes a bit of a chore to read. And really, it's a bit pointless. Yes, it grabs you when you first read "You do this, you say that" instead of "he/she," and it does create both a sense of immediacy and a connection between character and reader—but no more so than standard use of the first-person narrative, or even well-written third-person viewpoint.

Halting State is set in near-future Scotland: to be precise, Glasgow and Edinburgh in 2017, five years after independence. (For the benefit of non-British readers of this review, Scotland has always had separate judicial and educational systems from England since the union of the two kingdoms. Since 1999 Scotland has had its own parliament, but with many powers reserved to the UK parliament. Today in real life the Scottish Nationalist Party is currently in power, with the ambition of full independence. This might well occur in the near- to mid-future, but whether it could happen just four years from now is somewhat questionable.)

Sergeant Sue Smith is called to what appears to be an underground bunker to investigate a major theft from a company called Hayek Associates. She's shown a replay of an online computer fantasy game—"This is the Island of Valiant Dreams. It hovers above the Lake of the Lost, in the foothills of the Nether Mountains in Avalon Four" (proof copy p.13)—and watches as a bunch of orcs and a dragon break into a vault and steal swords and treasure. It's a real burglary: the thieves "nerfed our admins back to level zero and cast a Time Stop on everyone in the room. That's a distressingly high-powered spell..." (p.15) It turns out that the vault contained "quest items and magic artefacts" that players in Avalon Four had effectively put into safety deposit boxes. Hayek Associates runs the equivalent of an online bank for gamers.

My immediate thought was: as this stuff is all virtual anyway, why not simply restore all the goodies from backup? Nothing's actually been lost as such, so what's the fuss?—apart from the fact that their supposedly secure systems have been infiltrated. You can tell I don't hang out in Second Life—but then, probably most readers of this novel don't either. If the novel fails to convince at such an early stage in the plot, perhaps the author needs to take more care in explaining the seriousness of the situation.

Despite being set partly in virtual worlds, Halting State isn't cyberpunk; it's just a moderate advance in social use of information technology from where we are today. Probably the major change in the real world of the novel (as opposed to the gaming world) is that cops walk around wearing goggles which not only film everything they see but are also sophisticated communications and data I/O devices, giving every police officer immediate access, right in front of their eyes, to everything from police computer databases to local streetmaps. This is all thoroughly believable — Britain already has more surveillance cameras on its streets than any other country in the world, over four million people (most of them with no criminal record) on a DNA database, and plans to introduce ID cards with biometric information. We're almost living in Stross's future already.

There are two other viewpoint characters. Elaine is a forensic insurance analyst investigating whether Hayek Associates' own security might have been at fault (no insurance company likes having to pay out money); she also enjoys online gaming. She teams up with Jack, a software wizard who has written code for similar games for other companies. Their job is to investigate the Avalon Four game from the inside, searching for clues to the intruders.

It would be difficult to outline much more of the plot without giving too much away. Suffice to say that Hayek Associates is rather more than just a gaming company or a bank, and that the various deceptions within deceptions become somewhat complicated as the story gallops along.

The story itself is fine and so, most of the time, are these three characters; the novel's problems stem from its writing. There are two groups of people who might find difficulty grasping all its nuances: people who don't play role-playing and virtual reality games, and non-Brits. The first group will have problems because the book is littered with acronyms and terminology which will be meaningless to the majority of readers. For just one example, although the term ARG occurs throughout the novel, I think we're only told once that it means an artificial reality game. (If Stross's intended readership is solely computer geeks who will get the reference without explanation—the "geek demographic"—isn't that a rather limited ambition?)

For non-Brits, the problem is not the distinctive Scots usages, because the meaning of most of the words is clear from context—polis for police, heid for head, fitba for football, afrit for frightened, tawse for a leather punishment strap, and that most Scottish of all words, dreicht, applied to dismal, damp weather. The problem is one of reference. Halting State is littered with cultural references to the Britain of the last two or three years that few non-Brits will recognise. Just a handful should show the point. Stross mentions that a character's "subtlety of emphasis is truly politician grade, she probably practices copying Wendy Alexander videos before breakfast every morning"—Wendy Alexander is the current leader of the Labour party in the Scottish parliament. One character thinks "this has the potential to turn into an Ian Blair moment"—how many Americans would know that Ian Blair was the head of the Metropolitan Police in London who didn't realise that his men had shot dead an innocent man on a crowded Underground train? Yet another topical reference is a mention of insurance companies needing to "recoup their losses on the flood-plain property slump"—in the last couple of years Britain has had several serious floods in such housing areas.

The proof copy I read was the US edition—at least, in spelling and punctuation. Yet on just one page we have, with no clue whatsoever to their meaning, HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs), TfL (Transport for London), PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships, a politically popular but controversial financing system in Britain in the 1990s and early 2000s), ECB (European Central Bank), Chelsea tractor (slang for what Britain calls a 4x4 and America calls an SUV), the Tube (the London Underground), and DLR (Docklands Light Railway, a particular line linked to the Underground system).

All of this is careless, even lazy writing. It assumes that everyone will recognise the local world that the author lived in at the time of writing, and if they don't, then they can go hang. If you're writing a period piece or specific social reportage that's fine; but not if you're expecting your novel to be read by people of other cultures—including the USA—and other times: by 2017 many of the social references will be forgotten. Surely with SF, near-future or not, one needs to be particularly careful not to over-localise the writing of the story.

Despite these gripes, generally the novel is well written—though Stross really ought to know better than to use the spelling "alright" instead of "all right." It's sloppy usage in American English and an abomination in British English.

But even if you grasp all the cultural references, even if you understand gamer geek-speak, Halting State ultimately fails to satisfy on the most basic of levels. About half way through the novel I realised that I wasn't all that bothered about the resolution of the ever-increasing complexities of the plot. Why? Because I didn't actually care much what happened to any of the characters. The plot itself is quite clever, and very detailed, with the requisite number of twists and turns between our Goodies and the Baddies. But I just didn't feel a part of it. The three main characters are all interesting, with quite distinct personalities, and quirks and foibles which set them apart as individual people (two of the three reinforcing the stereotype of gamers as loners without real lives). So why didn't I care? I think it's because despite its initial immediacy, the constant repetition of "you awaken... you hop on a bus... you say... you ask..." eventually distances the reader from the characters. "You" is someone else, not me. If I'm reading "you... you... you..." I'm actually being pushed away from the viewpoint characters. It's an interesting narrative device—let's be honest, a clever gimmick—but ultimately it's self-defeating.

As the plot grows from one gaming company to national to international proportions, it becomes clear that behind it all is the issue (in real life as well as the novel) of computers being integral to every part of our lives, and all of them inter-connected. Very true, and increasingly worrying. But this fear was at the heart of Christopher Hodder-Williams's prophetic novel Fistful of Digits way back in 1968. Compare "Lots of critical engineering systems rely on encrypted tunnels running over the Internet... SCADA systems... remote medical telemetry... stock market transactions, civil airlines flight plans" (Halting State pp. 312-13) with "Factories all over the world; power dams and traffic control and air booking and nuclear power stations... all the military and political and economic systems" (Fistful of Digits p. 204). And that, I think, was the other problem with Halting State: for a high-tech thriller it felt curiously dated.

David V. Barrett is a former editor of the BSFA journal Vector and a former chair of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He edited the SF anthology Digital Dreams (NEL 1990). He has been a freelance writer since 1991, specialising in new religious movements and esoteric religion and history; his books include Secret Societies (Blandford 1997, Robinson 2007) and The New Believers (Cassell 2001). He plays fretless bass in the rock-jazz-blues trio Midnight.



David V. Barrett is a former editor of the BSFA journal Vector and a former chair of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He edited the SF anthology Digital Dreams (NEL 1990). He has been a freelance writer since 1991, specialising in new religious movements and esoteric religion and history; his books include Secret Societies (Blandford 1997, Robinson 2007) and The New Believers (Cassell 2001). He plays fretless bass in the rock-jazz-blues trio Midnight.
8 comments on “Halting State by Charles Stross”

With all due respect, most of the flaws you have highlighted are functions of you as the reader; that is (of course) a reviewer's job, but if I might respond to a few points from the other side of the fence ...

If Stross's intended readership is solely computer geeks who will get the reference without explanation—the "geek demographic"—isn't that a rather limited ambition?

Numerically, compared to the circulation of the average hard sf novel, no it isn't. It's much wider - and Stross has stated before he explicitly *is* pitching for that demographic, at the risk of alienating more traditional sf readers.

All of this is careless, even lazy writing. It assumes that everyone will recognise the local world that the author lived in at the time of writing, and if they don't, then they can go hang. If you're writing a period piece or specific social reportage that's fine ...

I can see why you felt this way, but this may be another generational/demographic issue; what to you seemed like lazy writing struck me as show-don't-tell aimed at my personal experience of the world. The second person viewpoint limits the ability of the author to fill in details that the characters take as givens, granted (and I will concede it doesn't make for the most engaging writing style), but this mirrors the contemporary media experience of social networking and alternate realities quite effectively. Just as in real life, the reader has to extrapolate if they feel lost, or simply go with the flow; most of the acronyms aren't plot-essential, and I don't think many readers would get too lost by skipping them without parsing. I'm bombarded with new acronyms every day, and I rarely stop whatever I'm doing to find out their meaning before carrying on.
That's the thing - Stross has written a period piece. That's the entire point of Halting State, as far as I can tell - it's not meant as prophecy, but as a snapshot of where we are now. And while I'd agree that the second person narrative may be more gimmick than than genius, I think Halting State works on its own terms, and certainly speaks to my (albeit limited) experience with metaverse and gaming culture.

Thanks Paul! I was actually going to comment here too, but kept reloading just in case someone decided to do so before me. You've probably written a lot of what I wanted to say, only better.
I was going to say that the review seems to be either seriously underestimating reader comprehension, or misunderstanding Stross's demographic (at least where books like this are concerned).
The use of the second person is perhaps the key: It's in homage to the old text-based adventure games of yore like Zork ("You are in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.").
I'm not sure that it's instantly recognizable as such, but if nothing else, gamers are used to being addressed in the second person. Given that Halting State is Stross's most successful book thus far (I'm talking sales, although for me I think it was possibly his most "successful" novel too), it doesn't seem that it was that challenging for the bulk of the readers; certainly for it was initially challenging, but eventually became unnoticeable, and it certainly wasn't alienating.
As for the localised in-jokes and Scottish usage, again this is a quite strange objection and I think Paul gets it right: most readers are perfectly capable of glossing over unfamiliar acronyms and references. It's certainly not a deal-breaker for the reader, I'd think: I'm equally at sea with all those American police procedural and law'n'order type shows, after all.
And after all, Gibson's cyberpunk was all about the thrill of exploring an incompletely explained new universe, much like exploring the worlds of Infocom games if the '80s and MUDs in the '90s.

I actually agree with David that the novel is a deeply flawed one. For my money it's arguably Stross' weakest work to date.
But...
I think that he only touches on the reasons why the novel is flawed. A lack of accessibility isn't that much of an issue as the book clearly is selling well.
The barrage of jargon is a typical Strossian stylistic quirk if you ask me. There's a great bit in The Atrocity Archive when a philosopher explains her field of work and the jargon is so authentic-sounding it could have come out of the mouth of any of the philosophy PhDs I know.
The characters in the book speak in acronyms because I think that's the way British politics is heading. It's supposed to be slightly off-putting as it's included intentionally as a form of jargon. It's not Stross who is jargoneering, it's the British political classes.
I thought Halting State had weak characters, a weak plot (as well as Stross' traditional problems with denouements which has everything happen off-stage) but I think it does have its strong-points and the commentary on contemporary politics is definitely one of them, and that includes the jargon.

A quick check shows that World of Warcraft has 10,000,000 active players.
If Charlie can appeal to 1% of those then I have no doubt he'll be happy...

Paul Kincaid

I'm with Peter on this. I've not read the novel, but as soon as I read the comment about second-person narrators I recognised that it was a reference to old games. It is perhaps also worth pointing out that second-person is not that unusual a narrative device, I've encountered it a number of times, including at novel length in works like Molly Zero by Keith Roberts. I've generally found it more engaging than distancing as a device.

ER

Americans who don't know British or Scottish slang can often get the meaning of the word in context. Its a lot like reading any book in American English. Not all of us have a 50,000 word vocabulary, but it is not all that difficult to suss out what a word means.

NelC

I have to say that the second-person device more-or-less vanished from my consciousness one or two pages in. My textual adventure game experience is fairly weak; I've played only a handful of games, and only ever finished one (The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy), so I don't know if that has much to do with it. The only problem was occasionally losing track of which "you" was being narrated, but I also get that with multiple first-person narratives at times.

What frustrates me about this review is that it gripes about small things - jargon, second person storytelling and such - while almost completely ignoring the science fictional aspects. Because what impressed me about the book was how believeable this future was, how on target.

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