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Bookends: An unlikely trio of investigators saves the day January 1, 2014

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: An unlikely trio of investigators saves the day

By Dan Davidson

December 4, 2013

– 826 words –


Halting State

Halting State

By Charles Stross

Ace Books

324 pages



You open the book to find that it begins with an email that looks a lot like an extended version of one of those phony employment ads that keep turning up in your junk box. This one’s addressed to someone named Nigel, whose name will turn up later, and it is from a firm claiming to be headhunters, offering him a job.

You move on to chapter one, where you meet Sue Smith, the first of three viewpoint characters who you are gong to follow as the story develops. Sue is a sergeant in the Edinburgh Constabulary in the year 2018, when cops wear google-glasses as pretty much standard equipment so that all their on-duty actions and observations are recorded in LifeLogs. They a lot of their work in various forms of online detecting and analyzing, within a dedicated cloud channel known as CopSpace.

Sue is called out to the oddest theft she’s ever encountered, and it takes you a while to to realize what’s going on. Within the framework of an online video game a bunch of thugs who shouldn’t even have had access that universe broke into a structure similar to a bank and made off with all the quest items and magic artifacts that pass for wealth in that gaming world and several others. Her task is to find the perps and the swag, which can apparently be traded around a lot like the bitcoins everyone is starting to get excited about now.

Next you meet Elaine, who is an investigator with the insurance company that has been called in to work on the same case. She’s great with generally accepted accounting principles, but not so well versed in gaming.

That’s where Jack enters the story. Jack’s an out of work programmer with lots of gaming skills and he is to be Elaine’s guide in the online world. You meet him sitting in a drunken/stoned haze in an armchair chained to a NO PARKING sign in Amsterdam, having just been fired from his software developing company. It’s not a promising beginning, but he is soon selected by a search engine to be Elaine’s parter/mentor, for reasons that will be made much clearer to you as the book continues.

Just before the story begins, Charles Stross thanks a whole long list of first readers of this book for their invaluable assistance. I’ll bet a good chunk of it addressed the problems inherent in writing an entire novel in the second person singular voice, something usually reserved for instruction manuals and choose your own adventure books.

It’s quirky, and it took me a few character rotations to stop noticing it and just let the story run.

That is, of course, why the first five paragraphs of this review were written the same way, just to give you an idea of how the book feels.

There are layers to this story, and the simple burglary is just the first level of the adventure, which is, I suppose, structured a bit like the levels in a video game. Somewhat like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, the plot gets bigger the further into it you move, and I soon found I was picking up this book before the other ones I was reading at the time (there are always several of varying genres on the go) just to find out what Stross’ odd trio of protagonists was going to encounter next.

The title of the book is a pun, according to the author. Stross is a former computer programmer and the Halting Problem is a rather famous conundrum in programming. An online description puts it thusly: “Given a description of an arbitrary computer program, decide whether the program finishes running or continues to run forever“.

A lot of the plot of the book involves a group of hackers who are attempting to bring the economy of a small European state (Scotland has achieved independence in this future) to a screeching halt, or … a halting state.

Video games, computer surveillance and LARPing (life action role play) have a lot to do with how this story develops. Like that poetic passage in the book of Ezekiel, there are wheels within wheels within wheels before our poor protagonists begin to have any idea what’s going on or how their very lives have been manipulated by players behind the scenes to bring them to the point where they would be caught up in the attempt to set the situation straight.

Having read two other novels by Stross, each of which was completely different from the other, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that this one read differently than either of those. They do have a certain subversive sense of humour in common, but that’s about all. He’s hard to describe but he’s definitely worth picking up.







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