Thursday, July 24, 2008

Halting State, by Charles Stross


So you’ve heard about Charles Stross’ latest book, Halting State, and you decide to pick it up. It’s been nominated for a Hugo, after all, and Stross generally never fails to be entertaining. You start to read. Ah, Stross is experimenting with second person narration! That makes sense; the story’s plot is largely about MMORPGs, which are essentially all from second person POVs. Anyone who has played a modern computer game, from Quake to WoW, will be used to thinking this way. And look, he’s writing from multiple perspectives. Not just one “you,” but three. Again, with frequent POV-hopping in games, that makes sense. The first character you read about is a female cop in Scotland. That’s pretty cool; you can see how she’ll probably be central to the plot, and she seems like a nice, no-nonsense sort of person. Next up, a woman whose spare time is dedicated to LARPing with big effing broadswords. Now that’s just cool. In her real life she’s an insurance adjuster of some sort. It’s a little hard to see how she’ll fit into things, but she’s already established her cool geek cred. But wait, who’s your third player? A recently fired computer games programmer, so drunk in Amsterdam that he’s been chained to a lamppost and can’t remember how he got there. About this time you realize that it’s easier to read about “him” doing stupid things than to read about “you” doing stupid things, and you begin praying for more expository dialog so you can get a break from “you went here, you did this” narration...

OK, I’ll stop now. Charles Stross never fails to entertain, but in this book he comes close. Second person narration is hard to sustain, even over a novella, so a novel's worth is pretty wearing. No matter how flawed, though, I couldn't actually stop myself from reading it all the way to the end. Stross had set up a mystery intriguing enough that I had to find out whodunnit.

The multiple-second-person-POV trick is legitimate given the subject matter of the book, and one has to give Stross credit for trying it. However, there's a significant difference between the second person POV gaming experience, and the reading experience. When you’re gaming, you have control over what “you” do. As a reader, the author is necessarily in control of what “you” do, which makes it more jarring and annoying when “you” do something you don’t agree with. Likewise, when gaming it is easy to be aware of the difference between my elven mage and my halfling thief. In Halting State it is less easy to keep clear which of the three main characters I am reading about. From the different descriptions you would think that these three would be easy to keep straight, but the voice of the narrator doesn't change sufficiently between chapters: no matter who "you" are, the voice telling you about "you" is always the same. That's probably the biggest flaw in the whole book.

Onto the plot. Someone staged a bank robbery in an online game. At the company running the financial system for that game, someone panics and calls the local police. "You," Sue, are the first officer on the scene. Various money people start getting worried. If this becomes known, it may cause stock in game companies to fall sharply. The insurance people get involved. Thus "you," Elaine, a bit of a gamer yourself, get sent with a team of auditors up to Edinburgh to try to cover their assets (as it were). They also hire "you," Jack, a recently laid-off game programmer who will be able to show them around inside the code.

As the plot thickens, the stakes rise. It’s forgivable, but more than a little disappointing, that the threat of raising the Elder Gods never becomes apparent, as it does in Stross' "Laundry" series (Atrocity Archives and Jennifer Morgue). Instead you get a maelstrom of corporate interests, industrial and international espionage, assassination attempts using LARPers, quantum computing, and national computer security.

As usual, there are a ton of great ideas here. Interestingly enough, if you combine Stross’ paranoia of the hacking of an entire country's inter and intranet with Edward M. Lerner's concern with RFID tracking, you may as well just stay indoors with your tinfoil hat on. Nonetheless, Stross’ projection of ubiquitous internet access into the near future is convincing, and his ideas about using that for LARPing are fun.

HOWEVER: that just doesn't compensate for the massive characterization flaws. Beside the lack of differentiation, there's also the matter of the romance between Elaine and Jack. Apparently, just because they're working together, they're opposite sex, and they're both gamers means they're destined to get it on. This is apparently so inevitable that Stross neglects to show us anything like a developing chemistry between the two. Elaine looks at Jack with a "well, he's not that bad" attitude, and Jack looks back with a "I'm totally oblivious because I'm not worthy of her" attitude, and the next thing you know they're in bed. Ouch.

Then there's poor Sue, the lesbian street cop caught up in all this. She doesn't drive any of the action. She's got no clue about gaming or white-collar crime. In fact, it's her ladder-climbing superior Liz who actually gets a handle on things and maneuvers the department through it, even as the big Ministry guns are being called in. My question is: why is our POV Sue and not Liz?

One more quibble: at the end, one of the bad guys actually starts monologuing instead of shooting our heroes. Stross knows it too. Here's a portion of the scene:

He looks angry, and a bit bewildered now. "It was working fine until you showed up." If it wasn't for you pesky interfering kids, I'd have gotten away with it...

In the end we do find out whodunnit, but it's less than 100% satisfying, and it feels like it took too long to get there, especially wading through all the second person narration. If you're looking for your next Stross book I'd have to say skip this one and head either for a "Laundry" novel or one of the volumes in his "Merchant Princes" series instead. Much easier to read, with much more coherent narration.

3 comments:

Paul Graham Raven said...

"In Halting State it is less easy to keep clear which of the three main characters I am reading about. From the different descriptions you would think that these three would be easy to keep straight, but the voice of the narrator doesn't change sufficiently between chapters: no matter who "you" are, the voice telling you about "you" is always the same. That's probably the biggest flaw in the whole book."

Now, I agree that the voice is very uniform, as this has been remarked upon by many other reviewers. The difference being that I never found it bothered me - which I'll admit puts me in the minority, as I've read so many reports of a coherence struggle that I simply never experienced. What this says about my own connection to consensus reality is probably best left undiscovered...

... but back to the point, which is that I assumed the neutral voice was deliberate, a post-modern cypher for the disengagement, hyper-individualism and intellectual isolation of modern life, a way of asking "are MMOs any less 'real' than the lives we see on TV, or sit next to each day on the bus?"

It's worth bearing in mind, when assessing the validity of that particular reading, that I have lived alone with no company other than books and an internet connection for far longer than most people would consider normal, healthy or sane. ;)

Karen Burnham said...

Paul - I see what you're saying. It obviously is deliberate; certainly he has no trouble writing distinctive voices for dialog. (And I must add, I didn't have *trouble* keeping track as much as I noticed that I had to do in consciously, instead of having the narrative voice help me out).

I do have to say though, that when reading Stross the explanation "post-modern cypher for the disengagement, hyper-individualism and intellectual isolation of modern life" doesn't jump to mind so much as "he ran out of time to polish it up further." (Did you see Stross' response to Jonathan's essay?)

Carl V. said...

This is the first, and thus far only, Stross that I've read and I thoroughly enjoyed this. It was initially hard to get into the narrative voice, but once I did it was easy to be taken along for the ride. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but as a gamer I found it great fun and it makes me want to read more of Stross' work. I was happy to read recently that he has a sequel in mind.