Reviewlet: Halting State by Charles Stross

I first heard about Charlie Stross a few years back when, within the space of a couple of days: I’d been browsing around e-books and found he’d made Accelerando available under a Creative Commons license, I was Googling around Githyanki for some reason (I think they’d turned up in Neverwinter Nights 2) and found he’d created the AD&D version of them, and then an old schoolfriend blogged about enjoying the paper version of Accelerando. That all led me to his rather splendid blog, and with further meanderings to evidence of extraordinary geek cred.

Ironically, though Accelerando has been sitting on my PDA for a couple of years now, I still haven’t got round to actually reading it; I started with A Colder War online, then The Atrocity Archives, wonderful spy thrillers with added Cthulhu Mythos. Towards the end of last year, he released extracts from Halting State, a near-future novel that starts with a robbery in an MMOG. Say no more, obviously I picked it up straight away. Well, OK, not quite straight away, I got distracted by something (probably the next thing that turned up in the RSS reader) and forgot for a bit, then got as far as sticking it on my Amazon wishlist (or “vast pile of stuff I’ve found references to somewhere or other that look brilliant, but I can’t just go ahead and get the whole lot what with, y’know, money and time and storage space all being finite and that, and so it all piles up and then you go to actually buy some of it but get paralysed by choice and it’s a toss up as to whether you abandon the whole idea and play Peggle or frenziedly click for a while then pass out coming round only when a postman knocks on the door with a parcel of several books, a 2Gb memory card that you don’t strictly need but heck for less than a fiver it’d be rude not to, a coffee maker, a sonic screwdriver LED torch, that Medieval Total War expansion pack you never quite got round to at the time, and an electric toothbrush”-list, as I like to call it. Though I’ll concede “wishlist” is slightly snappier.) Fortunately I then saw it in a bookshop in town, where paralysis of choice was reduced to a slight limp of minor indecision, and I made it out with just Halting State. And a small selection from the 3-for-the-price-of-2 offer. And a large cappuccino and a muffin from the coffee shop. And a novelty bookmark.

Anyway! On to the actual book. Halting State chucks you straight in to 12-years-from-now very skillfully; I can’t remember anything sticking out and shouting “it’s the FUTURE with LASERS and JETPACKS and stuff”, the changes are mostly subtle, and utterly believable. Stross’ Tech Lab article for the BBC is a good primer for some of the ideas. The initial set up, in the extracts available from his site, is slightly hard going as you’re introduced to a lot of people in second person narrative switching between three characters. After that, things settle down a bit and you start to get a handle on what’s going on, but then stuff really kicks off and we’re off down the rabbit hole, keep your hands and feet inside the carriage. I’m going to need to give it a second read, as the twists and revelations come pretty thick and fast.

It’s quite jargon heavy, and if you’re not up with MMOs and techspeak you might struggle, but I loved it. If you’re a MMOGer, and you like near future thrillers, what’re you waiting for? Add it to your wishlist now! (And don’t forget that four gig USB stick while you’re there…)