Book Review: Halting State by Charles Stross

Halting State by Charles Stross

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Video games stand out as possibly the best model for UI design and how virtual reality will function in the future—point-in-fact, the entire MMO community shows us that virtual worlds are already a reality and that they can promote cooperation, leadership, and education. As a result, the fact that Halting State takes its cues from modern video games and then extends them to their logical end makes it a very amusing read. The plot of the story revolves around a heist that takes place in a video game virtual world.

That’s right: the plot of this story is all about trying to determine who pulled off the heist of a bank inside a video game.

The first thing most readers are going to notice about Halting State is that it’s written in the second person. This can be disconcerting at first—but as a storytelling mode it managed to put me in the shoes of the POV character in a way that I’ve never experienced before. Unlike first person, the second person “you” made the story feel a lot like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Each of the characters contained their own insights into the world and the delivery produces a sense of being there and being affected by the world.

The plot starts out with a massive cybercrime heist of the massively online role playing game (MMORPG) Avalon Four. The robbers managed to escape with several thousand euros worth of “prestige items” by nothing less than a band of orcs who brought in a dragon for artillery and fire support. While this sort of thing would normally not be that big of a deal (this is all digital after all) the actual heist has a lot of implications due to how the robbers managed to escape with the items and how they broke into the bank in the first place.

For example, in order to break into the central bank of Avalon Four the robbers needed to compromise a series of extremely large cryptographic keys. This becomes an important element for the plot later on when it’s discovered that Chinese hackers have managed to penetrate the entire European network backbone—including the cryptographic keys that prevent intrusions—from there the story plays a fun resonance between geeking about video games, virtual realities, and cryptography mixed with a sort of spy noir thriller.

As a book, Halting State is a lot more of a geeky science fiction thriller that spells out the story of three protagonists: a work-a-day gamer/programmer, an insurance fraud investigator, and a police detective. From the onset, the different POV characters go about their own lives following their own separate plots that inexorably drive towards each other as they uncover more and more of the underlying mystery. Sue Smith, the police detective, drives an investigation by the Edinburg authorities into general mayhem; sections with Elaine Barnaby provide a backdrop of financial investigation and a lot of interesting corporate maneuvering as she’s the fraud investigator; and finally Jack Reed who provides the truly geeky and video game aspects of the book as the programmer.

For those into Internet slang and memes, the word 0wnz0red actually appears in the book at one point to describe a thoroughly hacked server.

Also, there’s even the appearance of a zombie flashmob.

For American readers, many of the European slang will probably seem a little bit confusing; but it’s not overpowering and by in large it’s not difficult to empathize with the characters and their plight. Stross does an excellent job of painting them as real people, with real jobs, and the humor hits all the high points. For a science fiction novel, Halting State occurs in a near-future society with a lot of interesting gear floating around that mimics what can be done today (with a few things that we can’t quite yet.)

If you’re a video game player (especially if you know modern MMORPGs like World of Warcraft) this book is probably a must-read. Stross does an excellent job of melding the world of the virtual with the world of spy noir modern espionage and the writing style provides a refreshing, if strange, diversion from the normal provisions of novel writing.

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