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'Halting State', Charles Stross



I really have just finished this (in the bath, where I do a very high percentage of my reading).

It's not SF or fantasy, but it is by an SF writer. Really though it's more of a near-future thriller. The thing is though, 'near-future thriller' describes any number of identical doorstops found in those branches of W.H.Smith you wander around in with your suitcase while waiting for the train to arrive. The sort of book where the author's surname is printed in two-inch high gold-embossed letters. But this really isn't that kind of book.

That kind of book would never have a character exclaim "They're tunnelling TCP/IP over AD&D!". That kind of book probably wouldn't have an auditor as a heroine. The plot is perhaps what Frederick Forsyth and Milton Friedman would come up with if they'd overdosed on World of Warcraft while watching re-runs of Taggart.

All of which sounds ridiculous and maybe would be in the hands of most writers. Here, it's entirely plausible. The near-future tech is mostly stuff that exists now and could conceivably be mainstream by the time the novel is set (in ten years' time or so). The author is a gamer, so the RPG and MMORPG stuff ticks the right boxes. (Own the 1st edition AD&D 'Fiend Folio'? Look on the front cover. That's a Githyanki. That's one of the monsters he contributed to White Dwarf (although he based it on a grrm idea).) Of course gamers who wannabe writers are ten a penny. Gamers with a pretty damn good grasp of monetarist economics, share options, the dotcom boom and the business world in general, and who are also genuinely talented writers are rather rarer I should imagine.

It's a clever book. I absolutely loved it. The only small criticism I have is that second-person narrative feels a little odd when there are three point-of-view characters and the chapters separating them are pretty short. You get ten pages of being a lesbian police sergeant before suddenly 'you' are a nerdy programmer and then ten more pages later 'you' are a forensic accountant who looks like a librarian and is into medieval sword-fighting. Still, it didn't really bother me.

I would recommend it wholeheartedly, except for one niggling doubt. Did I like this book so much because it flattered me? This is a book full of obscure references that I got because I'm a chartered accountant, who used to advise dotcom start-ups, who studied monetarist economics at university, reads Edge every month and is a role-player. When a reference to a particular measure of money supply is casually tossed into the text, I knew what the author was on about. I know about derivatives. I know where you might find the Plateau of Leng. With a lot of serious modern literature, I wonder if the appeal for people who read that sort of stuff is that they've read the other high-brow works that they reference and they get to feel clever. This might be similar.

So there you go. I loved it, but it seems like it was written with me in mind. You might not find it so...personal.