Charles Stross – Halting State

A brilliant novel by a brilliant writer.

Unlike a number of his recent pre- and post-Singularity narratives (Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise, Accelerando, Glasshouse) that Stross has been unleashing upon the now suspecting masses, in terms of its timelines Halting State is a much more humble affair. It is set in 2017, primarily in Edinburgh and the independent Republic of Scotland, which seceded from the United Kingdom five years earlier – the events are summarized in the fictional entry from CIA World Factbook (34). While many elements seem to derive from cyberpunk’s data-oriented futures – omnipresent surveillance, police fines payable by PayPal and quantum computers (no AIs, though), there is no future shock here and from the first page the reader feels firmly in the now-and-here territory.

The plot opens when Sergeant Sue Smith (talking about alliteration), a no-nonsense Edinburgh policewoman, receives a dispatch concerning the reported robbery. When she arrives at Hayek Associates, an online game company, she is shown a footage of the heist. Instead of the masked perps and the flying bits of the vault door (the flickering digits of the security-breaking notebook would probably be a more appropriate metaphor) she finds herself gaping at a band of spell-wielding orcs and a dragon pillaging a bank in one of the online games managed by Hayek. Ready to dismiss the virtual robbery and reprimand the company directors, she changes her mind when she learns that while the robbery was virtual and the loot seemingly worthless, the potential losses of Hayek Associates resultant from stock fluctuations and endangered transactions in shares amount to twenty six million Euros. The investigation opens, which comes to involve two other protagonists of the novel – the nerdish programmer Jack Reed and the belligerent forensic accountant Elaine Barnaby – and leads not just to financial scams within the industry but the volatile intersections of international politics and economy.

The full review in the next issue of Foundation.

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