Sunday 25 November 2007

Halting State.

I finally got around to giving some attention to Halting State, Charlie Stross's latest book where he builds out a near future plotline and avoids the singularity \ post-singularity themes of his earlier works. This near term SF focus has become a trend lately with Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End, Ken MacLeod's Execution Channel and William Gibson's Spook Country all demonstrating that the near future is pretty fertile terrain for good hard SF. Halting State's an especially intriguing book for me as it seems to have been written specifically for my demographic - socially challenged tech-geeks with a gaming habit and a short attention span - and it certainly pushes all the buttons in terms of my areas of tech interest: its basic premise is that viable attacks on cryptographic network security protocols could be a potential battleground for the next cold war, for crying out loud that sounds like me having a rant in the pub. Anyway the basic story line is great and would also have been entirely novel (a bank in an online MMO falls victim to an in game heist and this leads to massive oddness as the distinction between reality and the gaming\virtual worlds gets very messy..) had it not been for the fact that a "real" banking fraud on a virtual bank within an MMO game made headlines earlier this year just as Stross was proofing the book for release. The lack of true originality doesn't matter a bit though and the risk that the future may turn out just as weird as you predicted must be one that all SF writers hope they will have to deal with some day.

Like Vinge's Rainbows End and MacLeod's "Execution Channel" Stross makes a compelling SF storyline without having to rely on any genuinely magical technology. Of all three books Rainbows End goes a bit further in terms of extrapolating where current technological trends might take us but none of these books require anyone to suspend their basic understanding of physics in the way that Iain M. Banks' Culture series or Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth sagas' do. This near future stuff is quite risky given the pace that technology moves at and even though I think Rainbows End is an ever so slightly better book, Vinge does not keep the tech as well controlled as Stross does. That may well mean that Halting State ages much more gracefully than Rainbows End, time will tell.

I still have the nagging feeling that it really is too much of a niche book despite being an excellent thriller I think Stross is really only writing for an audience of people like me this time and I would worry that it is going to put off most potential readers. He certainly pulls no punches in dumbing down the tech aspects of his plot and I wonder how many non tech nuts will be comfortable with acronyms like ARG\LARP\MMO and concepts like haptic feedback and quantum cryptography being important parts of the storyline. However, now that the Wii and the Nintendo DS are demolishing the perceived boundaries of the gaming market in general and connected network gaming with haptic feedback in particular, there are some signs that the "gamer geek" niche may thankfully become a subset of all Gamers rather than the dominant form. I don't think we're there yet though and I am still a bit reluctant to recommend the book to anyone who hasn't spent a good 10 years playing with tech under their belts and, to borrow Stross's own description of himself, hasn't got a low saving throw vs "Shiny" (and doesn't know what that means).

For those of you who are sad middle aged tech geeks though this is a fantastic near future SF(ish) yarn that deserved to be a strong candidate for this years Hugo's.

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