It is 2018, and a police officer (Sue), an insurance underwriter (Elaine) and a computer nerd (Jack) are called to Hayek Associates, an Edinburgh-based gaming company that has reported an impossible bank robbery from the central vaults of a MMORPG called Avalon Four. Yet senior management seem distinctly unhappy about all this attention, and when people starting going missing or dying, our three protagonists find themselves wondering who they are really there to investigate.
The book flowed nicely, avoiding lengthy info-dumps by interspersing them with gripping action, character development and light-hearted comedy. Our three protagonists from different walks of life come together briskly, and follow a trail of clues without too much faffing around. The plot is simultaneously high-stakes international jostling, and office romance with personal tragedy. Those (like me) who tend to draw a blank with techie fiction will find that Stross succinctly and subtly allows the reader to learn the meaning of significant terminology and technology. Yet those with considerable techie experience will, I imagine, enjoy the fact that explanations are not laboured. The real strength of this novel, however, is the total immersion that Stross generates through several clever techniques.
Rather than Year 3000 humanity whizzing around at warp-speed with zap guns, Halting State was published in 2007 and set in 2018, and there is a palpable link to the present day that makes the entire concept very realistic. Stross includes plenty of references to real companies, places and events, and builds his futuristic technology painstakingly upon already-existing cutting edge technology. In 2007 we had Google Maps planning routes and mapping your location; in 2018 we get optical overlays that project Google Maps onto the street in front of you as you walk or drive. Stross remarks in the interview at the end of the book that ‘most of the tech in Halting State is pretty much here today, or on the drawing boards’ – even the overlays that allow the police and criminal networks to coordinate their actions are just a hybrid of two already-existing technologies.
The structure of the novel is unusual – the chapters take it in turns to follow the three main characters in 2nd person present tense. Thus ‘you’ refers to a different character depending on which chapter you are reading. Stross admirably avoids confusion by switching dialects too – Sue’s speech is interspersed with regional spellings, and Elaine and Jack’s chapters are littered with corporate or gaming terminology. This gives the effect that, despite the 2nd person narration, we have a 1st person perspective – that Sue’s chapter is being narrated by Sue, and we are seeing through Sue’s eyes. The use of 2nd person present tense – apparently a homage to text-based games – really shouldn’t work, and I groaned when I read the opening paragraph. But around the 50-page mark it started to all make sense. It struck me that, as I go about my daily existence, I talk to myself a lot in 2nd person present tense. While usually I feel like an observer watching characters act, in this novel I felt like I was ‘playing’ each character – no mean feat considering there are three very different characters constantly being juggled.
The world of books, film and TV is saturated with attempts to scare us with the impossible or the unlikely. The strength of this book is that it scared me with the entirely possible. Because everything in this book could happen in the modern world, and any one of us could end up as one of the characters in this book, the chill-factor is off the chart. Stross nevertheless marries this with humour and warmth, so that I look back on this book with a smile on my face. It is one of the best novels I have read so far this year.