Halting State is a book that ticks all my “I’m interested” boxes. Its has lots of technology, virtual reality, augmented reality, on-line gaming, intrigue, mystery, crime, tabletop roleplaying references and a protagonist who’s full of self doubt. So I keep having to ask myself why I found it so hard to finish. The story is set in the near future and augmented reality is an essential part of every day life, the best example in the book is a network used by the Police to drive heads-up displays and overlays on their goggles/glasses. The result being they always know who they’re talking to, their past history and everything they do is recorded and analysed. The whole thing is so pervasive that the author tells us people can’t even find their way around big cities any more without their augmented reality map overlays. Massively Multi-player Online Games are huge business, telephones are insanely powerful and provide all your local computing needs, everything is highly-connected, pervasive computing is the norm, and taxis drive themselves to your destination.
Against this backdrop of near-future technology is the theft of a bunch of digital assets which drags our little band of protagonists into a deadly hunt for what’s really going on. Mix in some spy-vs-spy style espionage, some politics and a little bit of big business and we have what seems to be an engaging and complex backdrop for what should be an excellent journey.
Sadly, Charles Stross manages make it hard going. The book is written in the 2nd person, with chapters alternating between the main protagonists. Sometimes there’s even some overlap, so the end of one chapter from Elaine’s point of view in the second person, is then covered by Jack in the start of the next chapter. This is particularly frustrating when one chapter ends, “You squeeze his hand tightly”, and the next starts, “You feel her hand in yours” (those aren’t in the book, just my example). The 2nd person structure might work in some circumstances, but here it just adds to the overall confusion. The rest of that confusion is delivered via the plot which is straggly and badly connected, and the technical jargon. In an interview, Stross suggests that when he wrote this in 2008, only one of the technologies mentioned in the book wasn’t actually commercially available. That may be true, but the sheer amount of jargon and technology mentioned is overwhelming.
I kept reading because I liked Jack (the burned out games developer), and Elaine (a forensic accountant), I even liked Sue (a Scottish policewoman). However, thanks to the 2nd person delivery and the rest of the structure, the characters don’t grow and remain pretty shallow. Sure, they have their moments, and there are some brief flashes of what they could have been, but every time I felt I was getting to know them the 2nd person style threw me back to the real world.
The pace is okay, there’s humour, some amusing revelations and some excellent examples of what technology might turn into – but it’s all wrapped in such a chaotic and confusing plot that it’s too well hidden to fully enjoy. I was not at all surprised when the end turned out to be nothing that we expected and it had to be explained de-briefing style in the last chapter.
The actual conclusion was a real let down after the build up and it felt like Stross just didn’t know where to take the whole thing in the end.
Having said all of that, I read the whole thing, and I laughed out loud a few times. I enjoyed the technology when I could get past the jargon and I think Stross has provided an interesting insight into how things could turn out. This book is absolutely not average – but I’m going to give it a squarely average score. It could have been so much better and it’s saved only by the touches of brilliance amidst the chaos.