Review: Halting State

halting state

Another book review that isn’t a comic book. Don’t worry everyone, I’m still reading comics but I’m pushing to add novels back into my life.

Why I Read It

Halting State has been on my ‘to read’ list for about 5 years now. I was doing research on sci-fi novels that were set in the near future, and with more focus on how society has adapted to new technology (not necessarily how the tech works). By research, I was really comparing a manuscript I was working on to something in the sub-genre.

Halting State fit the bill precisely, and unsurprisingly I’m not as good of a writer as Charles Stross. There is a heavy emphasis on role playing games and gamifcation in general. It’s set in 2018 and was written in 2007.

What Others Think

A lot of reviews I’ve read about the book focus on three primary detractions:

  1. The story is told in the 2nd person. Which means, “You” are the character. It is pretty much how I remember every RPG I played in 90’s (all 3 times I played one), so I viewed it as a nod to the fan base. Others have viewed it as a joke, that missed its mark.
  2. The point of view rotates between 3 characters. Compared to William Faulkner’s My Mom is a Fish   As I Lay Dying which many hold up as the gold standard for multiple point of view story telling, Halting State was way more enjoyable. Multiple points of view is difficult to master because it requires each narrator to have a distinct voice. Which Stross nails. Layer on top the narration in the 2nd person and you’ve got some exploratory story telling.
  3. The author’s vision didn’t come true. Well duh. I used to be this snooty about sci-fi too, but then I became more interested in stories told in the comic book medium. Inaccurate visions of the near future are common place in comic books, and no one really cares because it’s accepted as a future vision of an alternate reality. So now I look at these complaints and think, “Well Duh, of course he didn’t get everything right.” This particular vision of the world had wide spread use of augmented reality via Google glasses, driverless cars, and a distributed gaming platform by Microsoft that allowed gamers to create one avatar but play it in many different realms (each run by different companies).

What I Think

More than anything, there is some genuinely great storytelling here. Even when I didn’t understand what was going on (which was plenty of times) I enjoyed the way the language of the story was crafted.

However, some of the plot elements have been done before and this story did not elevate them above the existing body of work. In fact, having read some of that existing body of work is what made understand the plot. Had I not read read Simple Genius by David Baldacci or Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson I would have been hopelessly lost. But maybe that’s modern storytelling. Most readers have access to the internet so if they’re confused on something they’ll look it up themselves.

The part of the story I enjoyed most was how the author ramped up the suspense at the halfway point. And by halfway point I mean it was literally page 175 in a 350 page book.

Also +10 for accurately working in financial derivatives.

After reading some of the hang-ups reviewers have with the author’s ability to predict a very exact future, it dawned on me that they missed the point entirely. While never mentioned explicitly, I distilled that in order for some of the games envisioned in the story, specifically SPOOKS, to exist in 2018 development would have had to have started in or around 2007. Which makes some of the ideas in the book all the more chilling and some of Charles Stross’s vision of the future more accurate than it appears at first glance.


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