Wednesday, May 20, 2009

JD's Take: Halting State (Charles Stross)

Halting State is a near future science fiction novel that uses a mysterious digital theft in Scotland as a backdrop to both explore the Stross's projections of technology (and the world political stage) for the next 20 years and to posit some of the possible dangers of that technology's advance. While doing so, Stross adeptly writes a compelling story with reasonably good twists, likable characters, and enough action and suspense to keep you turning the pages long after you should have packed up and gone back to work.

The basic technological premise of the novel is that human interaction with technology continues to become more and more pervasive. Most everybody wears digital eyeglasses that give them an internet-enabled overlay (or several overlays) on the real world in order to augment it with additional information. For instance, the police use an overlay called CopSpace which recognizes people in their field of view and gives instant information about them (arrest record, personal information, etc). People can overlay maps onto their field of view to navigate, gamespaces into their view to seamlessly immerse them in a fantasy world while they navigate the real one, and endless other applications are hinted at or explored. All of this is powered by distributing the processing across everybody's (extremely) smart phones. Basically? The future is sweet. And really, there's nothing here that's particularly farfetched for the future of technology. I won't say that I believe the predictions, but it is certainly a compelling argument for the way that tech might progress.

We join our heroes as they are gathered together to investigate the theft of Sweet Gear from a bank in an MMO. The implications of this theft are that *someone* has broken the cryptography on the networks, and that is Bad. It quickly becomes clear that this is Very Bad Indeed, and has implications for national security and worldwide politics and economics.

The story is told entirely in the second person, and switches characters each chapter between one of 3 POV characters. This sounds awkward, and it could have been, but Stross handles it masterfully. Instead of being jarring, it feels like a DM narrating a scene to the character as you read. This, in turn, helps to subtly draw you into the very gaming-centric story in a very effective way. The other thing it does is to reinforce the importance of perceived reality to the story. In a world where you can augment your reality however you want, the second person perspective really drives home that "you see a man" is a much better construction than "there is a man". Frankly, this was a subtle and wonderful and clever decision and I loved it.

The story wasn't without flaws... there were weak characterizations in the supporting cast and some unconvincing technological guesswork, but that's all nitpicking. This was a great book and I highly recommend it. Just read it now, while it still sounds like compelling futurism and not one of the other two options (reality and "flying cars" futurism).

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