by Charles Stross



358pp/$24.95/October 2007

The Halting State
Cover by Sophie Toulouse

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The world of on-line gaming is the background for Charles Strossís police procedural, Halting State. When a crime is committed in Avalon Four, a Massive Multiplayer On-line Role Playing Game, Sergeant Sue Smith, an Edinburgh police officer, finds herself attached to the case.  At about the same time, Elaine Barnaby, an accountant from Dietrich-Brunner Associates, and Jack Reed, an Łbergeek, find themselves working on an audit of the company.

Stross handles his three characters well in rotating chapters, although since Reed and Barnaby tend to spend most of their time together, he is in effect only running two storylines.  The characters are interesting enough to make the reader root for them, but not any more interesting than necessary.  The real hook for the novel comes in the strange mix of role-playing and real-life that Stross presents.

In addition to her work for DBA, Barnaby is also a reasonably avid gamer, who also fences in her spare time.  As she is trying to focus on the strange crime at Avalon Four, she gets a call from the dispatcher of a Live Action Role-Playing Game called Spooks. Barnaby finds that she must interrupt her important work to fulfill her contractual obligations to the game.

However, in the world Stross has built, in which on-line life and off-line life are so intertwined, anything can happen, from the bank robbery in a gaming-world that sparks the action in the novel, to a LARP taking on a life of its own.  Before Barnaby and Reed know whatís happening, they find themselves involved in a real game of Spy vs. Spy.

Although postulated as a police procedural, Strossís novel is really looking at the interdependence of our civilization and technology and how the reliance on computers and databases can debase any real privacy an individual might have, or think she has. In this way, Halting State is a cautionary tale, although Stross is careful not to make it a pedantic tirade, allowing the story tell itself in a natural manner. Stross extracts his near future from modern developments, not just in computers and gaming, but more importantly in the way technology is used, from ever-more-powerful PDAs and phones to surveillance cameras.

One of the narrative decisions Stross has made which sets Halting State apart from other novels is that it is told in the second person.  In each chapter, the reader is, in essence, Sue, Jack, or Elaine, and viewing the other characters through that characterís eyes.  The conceit isnít as awkward as it would at first seem, and Stross manages to bring the reader in closer, even as the novel has the ease of reading that a more traditional third person narrative has.

Halting State is an engrossing look at the way technology affects the lives of everyone.  The workers, from Reed, Smith, and Barnaby, up the ladder to those who feel they are in control, find that the control they have is an illusion, itself restricted by the technology and society in which they live.  Strossís setting and the crime that spurs his action, comes across as an interesting maguffin to examine this turn of events.

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