Friday, December 11, 2009

Halting State

I'm not sure any writer has better insight into near-future technological advances than Charles Stross. Part of this expertise clearly comes out of how well he understands the technology of today and the culture that surrounds it. But, in addition, Stross has a remarkable insight into the human animal, realistically portraying how people respond to input, including doing the really stupid things we are known to do. He doesn't fall into the writer's trap of having smart people do stupid things, but instead we discover that people who sometimes appear smart have chinks in their armor, and maybe they aren't that smart at all (or perhaps blinded or self-deceived). When someone fails in a Stross novel, it's clear that they earned it.

Halting State uses online gaming as a stepping off point to imagine a fascinating future where computing creeps more and more into daily life on a permanent basis, including near-perpetual human-machine interface though something like glasses. But Stross also plays fair with these advances, showing their glaring weaknesses and their effect on society, including an even bigger division between those who understand the technology they are working with and those who are merely consumers, who become targets of hacking and social engineering grown more mature as the technology advances. In many ways, Halting State parallels the great Snow Crash in its just-over-the-horizon future, relying on bite-sized changes rather than the massive cultural shift that Snow Crash predicts. And since Snow Crash has hyperbole embedded in its make-up, its action and characters are over-the-top and sometimes rollicking, while Halting State is more sedate, perhaps even pedestrian by comparison, and thus, ultimately, more believable in its future.

Since I have been involved with online gaming since the late 80s, I've been aware of how elements of the game get moved into the mainstream. My focus has always been on the social interaction and how the gaming world more and more is becoming mainstream and not only a microcosm of the "real" world but influential in the lives of people who don't play as fads and customs are exported. Stross recognizes some of this but is more focused on how the technologies are adapted into mainstream applications and, further, on how games will be used by non-gaming companies for more mainstream applications. The novel, a using a narration that rotates through a developer, a light player and someone who doesn't play at all, offers many different points of view, giving this future a breadth and depth not available from a single point of view or the point of view of several similar characters.

The novel opens with the police called in to investigate the seemingly innocuous crime of a virtual bank being robbed in a gaming world. The first narrator, Sue Smith, arrives at the Edinburgh headquarters of the Hayek Associates, administrators of the economics system of the game Avalon Four. She is a sergeant in the Edinburgh police force and quickly realizes she is over her head as the geeks she encounters speak a language she doesn't understand about a place she has never experienced, an online gaming world. As an outsider, her viewpoint allows the reader to begin to grasp the concepts they probably don't know either, and it becomes clear that a virtual robbery can have real-world implications—the items stolen from the bank can be sold in markets (think eBay) for real money, and if the news that the items that gamers spend months retrieving can be stolen without hope of recovery, the game company's stocks will plummet.

Enter the second narrator, Elaine Barnaby, a forensic accountant employed by the insurance company for Hayek Associates. The insurance company wants to protect its interests, of course, but Barnaby is also a pawn in the internal political games of that company, feeling like she has been sent to the hinterlands in exile (compared to London) while the rest of her team gets to go home. Unlike Sue, Elaine has some gaming experience and is relatively familiar with some of the concepts. But like Sue, she is suspicious of the people at Hayek and their motives and offers more emotional insight into the ongoing plot.

Jack Reed is the final narrator: a recently unemployed game developer, hired on a contract basis to help Elaine's company understand the inner workings of Avalon Four. His role in the narrative is the expert, finding new threads in the investigation and then describing those findings in layman's terms to everyone else. However, Jack is also something of a savant—he is emotionally stunted despite his enormous talent as a programmer and his knowledge of the hacking community. His character could be the most off-putting if not for Elaine's interpretation of him and for what I believe to be a brilliant narrative decision by Stross.

The story of the investigation is told in chapters that rotate between these three narrators serially, and as one might expect, they come together to pool their information during the investigation. But unexpectedly, each chapter is delivered in second-person narrative ("you" instead of "I" or "he"), actually putting the reader in the minds of the narrating character and revealing their thoughts and motivations while hiding the things they don't know. If that sort of shifting viewpoint were the only intention of the different narrative style, it really wouldn't have been necessary to use second-person. But since the novel is ostensibly about gaming, a medium that is pretty much solely delivered in second-person, Stross's own writing further exemplifies how lessons learned from the gaming industry can be applied to mainstream culture, in this case media.

In short order, the characters discover that nothing in their investigation is as it appears, and all of the mirages center on a tightening spiral of using technology for other than its original intent and on progress being based on the benevolent intent of technology's users. And this deviation from original intent is what makes the book so human despite its fantastic foundation: despite the core of technology, the story centers on the human. Relationships develop between the characters, especially Elaine and Jack, and Stross's narrative technique allow the user to see, even feel, the struggles people suffer through in every kind of situation. Ultimately, there is no way that a reader can solve the mystery; there's too much that is derived from Stross's imagination, and so while the action moves the story along, it is the characters' interactions and growth and insight into the brave new world that resonates with the reader.

And like Snow Crash, the predictions that Halting State holds border on the terrifying, if only because they seem so very likely to happen and happen soon. Especially interesting to me were the daily uses of technology that seem likely just because they make life so much simpler, and we know progress is founded very much on uncomplicating our day-to-day existence. And yet we are generally willing to overlook the cost of such simplicity, which is usually an underlying complexity that creates holes in security such that the devious can exploit us. And again, Stross recognizes the role that stupid, selfish decisions can play in a story (one might argue that choosing unsafe simplicity over safe complexity is one such decision), and the denouement is rife with wry cynicism as the perpetrator and their motives are revealed.

As an extrapolation of existing technology, Halting State is an understated (and thus that much more eerie) tour de force, a compelling work of science fiction. As an exploration of the struggle to be human in our rapidly changing world, it is a throwback to the most classic of science fiction writing. The result is at time action-packed and at others thoughtful and distressing. And always a solid read, another example of Stross's growing stature as not only a writer of speculative fiction but as a just a writer in general.

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