Halting State, Charles Stross

This is Stross’ 2007 SF mystery novel set in near-future Edinburgh. The opening crime is a bank heist in a swords & sorcery virtual reality game, with potential major repercussions in the real world. Soon those repercussions ripple outward and missing persons, murders, and international espionage get pulled into the story.

The most obvious stylistic gimmick to the book is that it’s written in the second person. You do this. You said that. Mostly, the “you’s” faded into the background, and I was able to sink into the story without thinking about them. But occasionally I found them jarring and annoying. It doesn’t feel like the second person narrative added anything to the story that wouldn’t have been there if it was written in the more usual first or third person, so overall I’d call the style choice an interesting but unsuccessful experiment from Stross.

For Stross, this story is set in the very near future. People go around wearing virtual reality headgear, but otherwise we’re basically looking at today’s technological landscape. The initial VR bank robbery setup is probably not so far away in the real world, something I’d expect to see within 2 or 3 years, really. The more unlikely technology, I’d think, is the possibility of interconnecting online game worlds. In the story, players regularly transfer their online personae, complete with loot and magic plot coupons (vorpal swords, rings of invisibility, … whatever) between online games. I’d expect this to break down as soon as one game company built at “Monty Hall” game where characters (for a fee paid in real money) could load up on power items, and then take them back to their other games to whoop ass on the competition.

Aside fr0m the practically contemporary setting, the story is very much on Stross’ home ground. There’s major story events in virtual reality, quick action, nonstop plot developments. The p.o.v. characters are all interesting and believable. Unlike other authors in Stross’s thematic and stylistic neighborhood (Neal Stephenson, I’m looking at you), Stross hasn’t succumbed to the temptation to bulk up each successive novel until they become unreadably long. Keeping the page count reasonable makes it much easier for me to pick up a book, knowing I’m going to be able to finish it in good time and move on to the next thing on my reading list.

In case these couple of quibbles make you think I didn’t like the book, you shouldn’t. Stross delivers a really entertaining novel, as I ‘ve come to expect from him. This was an enjoyable and quick read is just the kind of thing that keeps Stross at the top of my list of “read on sight” authors.

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