The novel “Halting State” by Charles Stross has been published for the first time in 2007. It was a finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards in 2008 as the best novel of the year.
“Halting State” is set in 2018 in the Republic of Scotland, which became independent in 2012 and adopted the Euro as currency. Edinburgh Police Detective Sergeant Sue Smith is called to investigate a bank robbery in which a gang of orcs who had the help of a dragon is suspected. Yes, because the robbery took place in Avalon Four, a place that exists only in virtual reality.
Hayek Associates, owner of Avalon Four, would have preferred an internal investigation on an event which in theory was impossible because the boundaries between virtual assets and real assets are getting more and more blurred so the robbery could cause a very real and very large damage to the company. It’s precisely because of panic that someone called the police in the real world.
A private investigation is launched anyway for insurance purposes by Brunner-Dietrich and Associates and carried out by Elaine Barnaby, who hires the programmer and expert in online games Jack Reed. Both the private and the police investigations will lead to the gradual discovery of larger and larger interests that go far beyond Scotland. For the protagonists it won’t always be easy to see where the game begins and where it ends, especially when very material dead bodies start being found.
In “Halting State” Charles Stross depicts the possible evolution of the world in the coming years, with special regard to technologies. If the acronym MMORPG scares you probably this novel isn’t for you because the story is full of informatics jargon, especially about virtual reality and online games.
The style of “Halting State” is unusual as it’s almost all narrated in second person. Initially this may be puzzling but it’s very suitable for this kind of novel remembering first of all that some computer games show messages which indicate what a player is doing in second person. In general, though the story takes place mostly in the real world there’s always a use of technological devices that allow people to be on line and the use of the second person gives the impression that they’re always controlling an avatar.
Almost the entire novel is made up of sequences of chapters in which the point of view alternates between Sue, Elaine and Jack. The exceptions are the prologue and the epilogue, which are in the form of e-mails received by other characters, and an interlude that informs us of the political situation in Scotland after the first three chapters that introduce the main characters.
Charles Stross has worked in the field of programming during his life and has also written articles about role-playing games. This can be seen very clearly in “Halting State”. Often science fiction stories set in the near future contain some fantastic elements but otherwise everything looks the same as the present, instead Stross tries to see the possible evolution of information technologies that are already in daily use to give us a view of life in 2018.
Other authors have imagined a future in which people live immersed in virtual reality, Charles Stross instead depicts a world where real and virtual worlds mix up with role-playing games that may take place part in one and part in the others.
The result is an international intrigue in which however the protagonists don’t move from Edinburgh, from which they extend their virtual investigation. In many ways “Halting State” is a spy story as Robert Ludlum could have written in a few years if he were still alive.
As already said “Halting State” isn’t for everyone due to abundant use of informatics jargon but for those familiar with that field who have at least some knowledge of role playing games it’s exciting and I recommend it for reading. It’s a very geeky novel in the way Charles Stross describes technologies that aren’t pure science fiction: on the contrary they’re very plausible and we can really expect to use them daily in the coming years.