"The novel is pulling back into the author," Stanislaw Lem
tells us, reviewing the imaginary title Toi ("You") by Raymond
Sereault in 'A Perfect Vacuum', his collection of "Perfect Reviews
of Nonexistent Books". "The author addresses the reader – to
give him notice." It took reality a mere 36 years to catch up with
Lem, at least in the form of 'Halting State' by Charles Stross. Written
entirely in the second person, 'Halting State' immerses the reader in
a traditional game of cat and mouse, played against the very untraditional
backdrop of the world some ten years hence that Stross creates. Emulating
the game-playing environment in which it is set, 'Halting State' proves
games will have a ways to go before they become as engrossing as the
novel. That said, someone is likely preparing a MMPORG game based on
the novel as I write. If it's as good a game as 'Halting State' is a
novel, then that someone might make a nice little king's ransom, probably
more than the publishers will earn from the novel.
It doesn't take long to become accustomed to Stross' second-person gambit.
Following the points-of-view of Edinburgh Police Sergeant Sue Smith,
geeky programmer Jack Reed and spreadsheet-slinging Elaine Barnaby, 'Halting
State' lays out a very tidy little scenario in which a bank robbery that
transpires in a virtual world has some serious real-world implications.
Each chapter tells you who "you" are, and in the end the effect
is not so different as the usual omnipotent character switches readers
are accustomed to finding. Of course, the effect is also very different,
in that the reading experience is rather akin to a gaming experience.
Given that the novel involves gaming and virtual worlds as key plot points,
that's appropriate. The upshot is that Stross manages the neat trick
of writing in rather experimental format without seeming at all experimental.
For this reader, at least, the whole second-person aspect of the prose
took a back seat to the unchecked flow of English and Scottish vernacular.
While I was reading the novel, I found myself thinking about the things
I "dinnae ken". Add a heavy dose of techno-geek-speak, and
you have a very exotic yet accessible feel to the book. It seems very
much like a product of the environment in which the action unfolds. Stross
leavens this with a very agile wit and a generous sense of humor. 'Halting
State' is by no means a comedy, but it is indeed very funny in a low-key,
off-keel manner. There's an excellent chance you'll find yourself reading
passages aloud, just to hear the jokes.
As a novel of crime fiction, 'Halting State' is even smarter than you
expect. Stross does a grand job of stunning the reading with his novel
environment, and lulling the reader into a sense of complacency with
regards to what is going to transpire within that environment. Then he
slyly escalates the stakes and the action, placing his enjoyable characters
in more jeopardy than the reader expects. In a novel where one of the
points is that everything can be viewed as a sort of technology, it's
appropriate that Stross demonstrates his own expertise with the technology
of crime fiction.
Characters are ever the key to reader's heart, and Stross creates a compelling
cast of players in his own MMPORG-oriented novel. He seems as adept with
his women as he does with the men. Sue Smith is something of a rookie.
She tends to keep her head low, her brogue high and her emotions bottled
up. Jack Reed lays in a thick layer of post-oughties jaded jargon, of
the sort that will have heavy-duty fans a-Twitter. And Elaine is equally
technical, though her expertise is fiscal rather than computational.
The second-person narrative technique might make them all sound the same
were it not for Stross' prose skills. The bottom line is that it is fun
to step into anybody's shoes.
Readers who might describe themselves to reside in the range between
anti-technical and non-technical may want to take notes as they try to
follow the intricacies of the plot Stross has devised. It's quite clever
and in itself a witty commentary on current technological and social
trends. Though the primary elements here are crime fiction, Stross rolls
in a nice overlay of science fictional Big Thinks, cognitive sinkholes
that will leave readers pondering the world around with a new set of
inward-looking spectacles. And wanting to order those which Stross describes
from the Internet; too bad they're not even in beta. Thankfully, Stross
includes an emotional arc to match the technological one, and the payoff
is equally rich and unexpected.
Stross himself has addressed the dangers of writing such near-future
fiction. In ten years we'll know the shape of the world, and it may not
much resemble that which Stross has painted. But 'Halting State' isn’t
about predictions, it's very clearly – second-person narration
clearly – about observations. Stross is a keen observer of his
own social, political and technological milieus, and what he sees when
he looks about him in the present is the future. In that sense, this
is the perfect novel not just for the digerati, but for anyone who finds
the present more and more incomprehensible. Strip away the future, and
what you have left are three people you like trying to keep from getting
chewed up and spit out by a world that doesn't seem to give a fig about
their fates. You care, however. After all, each of them is you.