Halting State

Posted by : atcampbell | On : February 17, 2009

Halting State by Charles Stross

12 people attended the discussion. Everybody but 4 people finished it. 1 of them was planning to finish it. Everybody has read Charles Stross before. Halting State starts out with a bank robbery in a multiplayer online game. Three people set out to investigate the robbery, or rather a security flaw that allowed the game code to be breached: a programmer named Jack, an auditor named Elaine, and a police officer Sue Smith. As their investigation uncovers spooky ways in which real and virtual economies are intertwined, they find out there is much more at stake than a game company’s reputation.

We discussed some aspects of this book that can make it potentially hard to read: gamer jargon, Scottish dialect, and second person point of view. The computer and gaming jargon kept one person from finishing the book. The rest of the readers were not baffled by any of those things. One reader even knew Scottish dialect well enough to think that the way the police officer Sue talked was inconsistent with Edinburgh slang. Several people pointed out how much they liked Charles Stross’ witty prose, his punchy language.

Almost all of us found the book entertaining and fast-paced. It got some people to reminisce about the early days of the internet, when “University of Wisconsin developed a rabbit hole between Usenet and Bitnet, and it really [angered] ARPA. Those networks were not supposed to communicate with each other. Each network was supposed to do what it had to do.” Many readers in the group have played roleplaying games. Back in the day when they ran dungeons, they were well familiar with players wanting to bring in people from their old dungeons, instead of starting fresh in a new dungeon. They would try to bring in their stuff, and that would cause inflation in the new game. So most readers could relate to the virtual economics of Halting State. Some even called Halting State a period piece, rather than science fiction, the period being turn of the century dot com bust. Others argued it’s near future, because we still don’t have self-driving cars, we don’t wear goggles with screens to which content is streamed through our cell phones, and we don’t have enough 3G bandwidth to play multiplayer online games on our phones. Not satisfied with either near future or near past label, one reader somewhat cryptically suggested this is “near present”. In any case, most people agreed there wasn’t much speculative element in the plot, so this could be more correctly considered technothriller than science fiction. As often is the case with Charles Stross’ books, people regretfully noted that this novel will age very quickly.

Everybody enjoyed well-developed characters. Sue was especially useful as the character that grounded the others. When the others were getting, in one reader’s words, “too virtual”, she would bring them back to the reality of the problems they were facing. One reader noted that Elaine and Jack’s points of view quickly became redundant, because Elaine and Jack were spending almost all of the time together. It didn’t make much sense to have things described from one person’s perspective, and then immediately from the perspective of a person standing next to him.

A reader who worked in game industry thought Halting State was authentic in portraying the ways industry people think and speak. He even recommended it to his coworkers at a game company. However, he found it not realistic that this book showed only the business side and not the creative side of the industry. There were very few mentions of developers, and not a single game artist in the novel. This reader wanted to have a closer look at how games are being developed in the future, but there was very little about that in Halting State. It didn’t show how creative people work. “It’s like having a novel set in the film industry, and the only people you talk with are accountants,” said the disappointed reader.

Some people criticized the ending. At least one person thought a critical plot twist at the end was not plausible. Despite all that most people found the book enjoyable, as it made them think of how the intertwining of virtual and real worlds affects us in ways we are not yet aware of.

— Elze Hamilton