This month’s Feature Article will be taking a look at Charles Stross’ Halting State.
While I found Halting State to be well written, entertaining, and an engrossing peek into our likely future, I will concede that this novel might not appeal to a broad audience of science fiction readers. Stross demands a lot from his reader in Halting State, whether it is his use of the second person point-of-view, his heavy use of Scottish brogue, or his immersing the reader into the arcane of MMORPG-speak. In addition, Halting State blurs the line between a traditional sci-fi novel and a mystery novel, and as each of these factors combine to produce an unconventional sci-fi novel, I think Stross does limit his audience.
It is, however, Stross’ use of the second person point-of-view that places the heaviest burden on his readers. For many, this second person point-of-view is an insurmountable hurdle, causing the book to be set aside. I don’t know whether the use of the second person was done to mimic the usage of you in role playing games, or whether it was done because Stross wanted the challenge and had the artistic freedom to attempt it, although I suspect it is a combination of both of these. The rationale of incorporating the second person from the gaming world into a novel about the gaming world probably gave Stross the perfect excuse to indulge himself in the artistic novelty of crafting a story using the second person point-of-view.
I do, however, think the choice to use the second person was risky since Stross undoubtedly limited his audience by doing so. This also made it doubly imperative that he actually succeed in crafting his second person narrative, for a poorly crafted narrative in the second person would have certainly doomed the novel as a failed experiment. While many readers may judge the book a failure in any regard because of the second person point-of-view, I do think Stross executed it quite well. He had an appropriate context for using the second person since it was supported by the subject matter, and since it was well crafted, I believe Halting State succeeds because of the second person point-of-view rather than in spite of it.
However, without having written in epistolary or letter style, Stross may have reached the upper limit on the number of characters that can be effectively woven into a second person narrative. Juggling three characters did force the reader to pay very close attention to the chapter headings so they knew which “you” was speaking. If I were to find any fault with Stross’ use of the second person, it would be that I found it difficult to discern between Jack and Elaine’s voices at times, and I did find myself flipping back to check the chapter headings once or twice when I had stopped reading in the middle of a chapter. Sue’s Scottish brogue effectively isolated her voice from Jack and Elaine’s, and while some might criticize Stross’ heavy use of the dialect, it was an effective tool to separate the second person voices. I didn’t have any issue with language here, so I won’t fault Stross for using it as a method to separate his voices.
I also didn’t have any issues with the game-speak when Jack was role playing or the geek-speak when Jack was coding, and I’m conversant enough with both to enjoy a story focused around these elements. Combining them with Stross’ vision of an interconnected wireless world produced a startling peek at a future that, in many ways, is fast approaching reality. Our lives are already becoming heavily dependent upon our “devices”, and as more and more of our daily activities rely on the delivery and seamless integration of information, we become more and more vulnerable to a disruption of that infrastructure. If a section of our cell phone network were to go down, or an extended internet outage were to occur, the impact would be more than an inconvenience, and much more than an economic event. Much like in Halting State, our public safety and healthcare delivery relies heavily on this infrastructure. Think for a moment how much disruption can be caused by the failure of a single automated traffic light, and this is just a minor thing.
Stross carries many of today’s technologies to their logical conclusion in Halting State, and while we certainly can argue the timing of such advancements, I can hardly remember anything in Halting State that is not already being worked on or has not been contemplated as a real possibility. Stross is not so much inventing our future as he is showing it to us. He’ll obviously get some of the details wrong, or the timing wrong, but I didn’t see much in Halting State that I thought was going to be impossible in my lifetime. Isn’t the military’s Predator Drone just a precursor to driverless cabs? And on a personal note, I’m really looking forward to the virtual typing, and I already wear glasses, so I’m all set for the information overlay of the goggles and the blurring of the physical and the virtual worlds.
I guess one of the reasons I enjoyed Halting State so much was that I completely accepted Stross’ extrapolation of technology and the conclusion to which his vision leads. Our dependence upon the wireless infrastructure is occurring all around us, and the blurring of the virtual with the real grows everyday. Having witnessed the “theft” of virtual objects when guild mates have had their Warcraft accounts hacked leaves little doubt about the “worth” and “value” of such items. From a psychological point of view, robbing the virtual bank so to speak has the same impact as the stealing of the flat screen TV. Now, who is to say that Stross’ vision is not already upon us? All we wait for are a few gadgets to be invented and the bandwidth to catch up.
So to summarize, I think Halting State is an excellently crafted novel in the second person, with an imaginative probe into our future. It was like a crystal ball, giving us a glimpse of what might be, and I recommend it as a relevant entertaining read. I would also recommend it just for the second person point-of-view since it is not often we get the chance to read a novel in that form. This in and of itself makes it a worthwhile read.