Halting State – Charles Stross

A multi-viewpoint novel that manages to weave several  threads at once to make a story, Halting State takes us into a future where information, interaction and games have to a large extent blended with the real world through the near ubiquitous use of augmented reality overlays.

I had a very hard time deciding if I liked this book or not.

On the one hand, the vision of the future is extremely well-pitched, with augmented reality providing different layers of information overlaid onto the real world through the use of glasses that are more or less ubiquitous. The police see the Copspace overlay, army see Milspace, and the technology has allowed gaming to step out of the realm of 100% simulation and into the real world. At the same time, massively multiplayer online gaming has reached a stage where so much value is at stake that specialised financial companies are contracted to manage the in-game economies by taking control of the central bank. The games run on compatible platforms, which results in borders and passages from one game to another, and games compete for players through the aggressive management of “fun”.

These technologies, valuable though they are, provide numerous new ways to compromise national security and corporate secrecy, and this is not lost on the various secret services and terrorist groups, who have all been creative in their use of the virtual and semi-virtual environments.

What we then have is a detective story that begins with the robbery of the central bank of a major online game. This is the thread that our main characters pull on, which begins to unravel a much larger series of interlocking conspiracies that rapidly spill over into the real world.

Despite the very promising melange, somewhat reminiscent of Neal Stephenson (the master of this particular art), we have a narrative that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do, and therefore tries to do too much.

A short way into the book I began wondering why I was being beaten over the head with a narrative written in the second person. That is a very strange point of view to adopt, and a very unusual literary device. Had there been a specific point to adopting it I might have found it interesting, but instead it was just jarring, and combined with the rapid jumps between three different main characters – each with their own point of view – made the book heavy going. I had such a hard time getting used to the narrative style that I put the book down, re-read Snow Crash to remember how this kind of world can be properly portrayed, and then came back to it.

The narrative also doesn’t entirely decide whether it wants to be a bit funny or more serious. The technology and its implications are very interesting and have the potential for much storytelling and analysis, but while we’re reading about the very real theft of tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in a virtual environment, we get descriptions of orcs and dragons that appear to serve no purpose, all narrated by a confused Scottish police officer which means we’re in for lots of “Aye, Reet” and “Ye dinna have tae take ma wurd fer it, I’ll text you a photie“, in order to get the point across that her accent is unintelligible.

I’ve lived in Scotland, briefly, so it doesn’t bother me too much, it’s even charming in small doses, but I can’t imagine it going down easily for a US audience, for example.

I feel like there’s a lot of potential here, but I keep thinking of Stephenson and the way he gets so much more into the story than just a detective story – the interesting world-building is just that, it doesn’t go further, making any points about how this world affects people, how it might affect the balance of power between government and people, rich and poor, first world and third world, or whatever. It doesn’t go into much depth about the relative importance to people of the online world versus the offline world, and how people’s habits might change, and what felt like a world quickly becomes window-dressing for a detective story.

Given the potential of the vision, I’ve already bought the next book in the series and it’s on my virtual “to-read” shelf, and I’m hoping Charles Stross is more ambitious next time. I think this could lead to something great.

In short, I enjoyed the book, but was left with the feeling that I’d been sold a full meal and realised at the end of it that I’d been put on a diet without getting told first.

Sleepover – Alastair Reynolds

Originally published in 2010 as part of the  Apocalyptic SF Anthology from Mammoth Books, Alastair Reynolds’  Sleepover flew somewhat under the radar for me, in large part because I wasn’t much of a short story reader back then.

When asked to perform feats of imagination for post-apocalypse science fiction, writers have every reason to go looking for stories that lean slightly away from the traditional nuclear winter by-way-of global warming story lines that I for one find slightly over-worn, and in this Reynolds doesn’t disappoint.

The origin of the world-ending cataclysm is left a mystery for much of the story – something I didn’t find very plausible, but which works well given the well-measured parcelling out of meagre hints and misdirections. It’s not a ploy that would have worked well in a longer novel, but it’s sufficient to maintain the dramatic tension here.

I can’t fault the writing, and I can’t fault the imagination that went into the story design. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to love the story either. Probably because the nature of the catastrophe and the consequent relative powerlessness of both the main character and everyone else makes it difficult for me to engage.

I was curious to find out what happened next – the story leaves you more or less in the lurch and feels like an experiment in world building – but I found that my frustration at being left hanging didn’t last long and I was soon looking for a different story to read, so I wasn’t as hooked as I would have liked to be.

At under one euro, it’s good value and certainly a brief distracting read, so it still gets my recommendation, even if I’m glad it’s only on my Kindle and not taking up shelf space.