Charles Stross: Halting State

Stross, Charles (2008), Halting State, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-441-01607-5

These past years, I have recommended Philip K. Dick’s impressive novel Ubik to a number of serious readers of literature interested in Dick and/or Science Fiction literature in general. It’s the perfect introduction to Dick’s work, because it’s both straightforward and pleasantly odd. But there’s more. Several readers have written back to me to complain about how little sense the book supposedly made, how Dick made gross errors in narrative logic etc. This is more than the usual philistine hurry to blame the author for one’s own careless reading. I ‘d suggest that it points to something that is quite typical of the genre of Science Fiction. Dick isn’t the only writer who’s used to infusing a narrative that seems straightforward enough with a dose of the odd or strange. There’s something angular, uncomfortable about many good books of the genre, a sort of basic difficulty, almost independent of the literary skills of the writer in question. Science Fiction demands, like no other genre, that its readers take each book on its own terms. It’s always dangerous to interpret difference as erroneous writing, but with regard to SF, this assumption is more likely to be incorrect. There is no other genre I know of that constantly mixes the tools of experimental fiction with the storytelling of an action movie to produce all kinds of inventive yet readable results. Given the prolificacy of many prominent SF novelists, it’s also astonishing that a great deal of them are greatly attentive not just to matters of literary structure and the like, but also pay extraordinarily close attention to the words they use, to the way they connect to the ideas put forth in the novel. Form is always connected to content in SF, and more often than not, it’s germane to any significant understanding of the book in question. All this means that any work of SF is likely to be less encumbered by conventional expectations of narrative logic, and it’s why Science Fiction is such a worthwhile genre to read. Even so-so works like Tobias S. Buckell’s Ragamuffin contain a daunting intellectual structure; apparent mistakes in narrative logic (as the aforementioned readers thought to find in Ubik) are usually more than that. They are part of a sophisticated, passionate, elaborate literary undertaking that has languished for far too long on the grubby shelves of ‘genre literature’ while the Franzens, Austers and Mitchells of this world reaped critical success and broad public appreciation. This tension between quality and lack of critical success has, on the other hand, led to a tradition in SF that tried to make the genre palatable, relatable, clean, acceptable, slowly draining the genre of everything that made it as powerful as it was. Charles Stross’ 2007 novel Halting State represents a kind of end point for this development. It would be silly and facetious to compare it to accomplished works of science fiction. In fact, the author it most resembles is not strictly speaking a SF writer, it’s Michael Crichton.*

Make no mistake, Halting State is a very good read, a real page turner of a novel; it’s both efficiently written and smartly constructed. Charles Stross is clearly a highly competent novelist, and Halting State is a well-nigh flawlessly executed thriller: in it, Stross displays an uncanny knack for timing, for example. Characters, plot elements, surprises and moments of shock and breathless action are released at just the right moment, a skill that should not be underrated. The book’s sleek efficiency is also visible in the way the characters are fleshed out in just the right amount. There is enough depth to care about the things that happen to Stross’ characters, worry about them, and cheer them on when they fall in love or have an arduous fight to endure, yet not so much as to make readers stumble over potential ambiguities and complexities. To sum up: if you like thrillers and/or Michael Crichton’s work, you’ll love Stross. Another similarity with Crichton’s post-Sphere work is the gentle way that Stross introduces his futuristic technology. Halting State is set in the near future and its technologies are rather similar to ours; the same is true for the kind of social and political structure we encounter. The changes are so slight, so carefully wrought, that they allow any reader to catch up with the author and quickly relate to the events without having to think or re-contextualize. The contexts stay, broadly speaking, the same; additionally, Stross presents a near future with completely believable and utterly dull developments. Nothing is surprising in any way, every single technology in the book is rooted in something that we already use and, in some cases, he uses ‘new’ technology that is already in development. One of the fundamental conceits of Halting State, about the interconnection of private entertainment and the grander world of global espionage, is so banal and unsurprising that it’s been taken up in various guises in pop culture, most recently in an episode of Nathan Fillion’s comedy-drama TV show Castle. Well, I have to admit: this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, what it means is that Stross has utterly professionalized his genre. He has moved away from visions and conceptual difficulties into the realm of professional thriller writers whose books are based on easy emotive access and, ultimately, fear. A fear of that which is still somewhat alien to us, a term which usually means foreigners and technology, i.e. things and people we can’t really understand. That’s why easy relatability is so important – only in a sequence of knowns can the unknown stick out as it does in the work of Crichton. This kind of discourse is of course buttressed by a defense or acceptance of the status quo, of things as they are, of ruling hierarchies and exploitative mechanisms. That this sort of thing, hitherto mainly typical of thrillers, crops up in SF as much as it does these days is sad, but true. Stross is only one of many examples: Cory Doctorow (cf. my review of Little Brother) is another, though less problematic one.

Thus, with a cleaned up language, efficient plot and relatable discussions of future technologies, only one potential stumbling block for readers remains, and it’s one of the few concessions Stross makes towards his genre: he toys a bit with pronouns. The book has three distinct protagonists, each of whom narrates their own chapter. However, the book does not use the first or third person singular, but the second person singular. This trick, which has no further consequences for the way the story is told, does not extend to difficulties of speech and perception, barely engages questions of identity or anything else. Stross could have removed this from the manuscript by copy & paste without damaging the rest of the text except in negligible ways. It’s a nod to his genre, no more than that. Since the novel is concerned with virtual realities, and the ways that our world interacts with the virtual, the use of the second person singular allows Stross to mirror virtual relationships as well as relations that we engage in in dealing with one another (and us ourselves) through online media. As as I mentioned before, using form in order to reflect on content is a commonly used tool in science fiction prose and this appears to be Stross’ main difference to Crichton et al. In most other ways, he follows the mainstream thriller guidelines almost exactly. The similarities to Crichton in particular are both general structural similarities, as well as more specific resemblances. Among the closer ties is an eery similarity to Crichton’s famously racist 1992 novel Rising Sun, which painted the ascendancy of the Japanese economy as a threat to Americans in several garish colors. The apprehension towards dominant Japanese companies had already produced books like Tom Peters’ fun but ridiculous In Search for Excellence (1982), but for Crichton, exalting American values or Americans in general was not enough. His novel contains murderous Japanese businessmen, scheming Japanese officials and two Americans caught in the middle of an intricate intercultural intrigue. Something somewhat similar happens in Halting State. A robbery and a murder have been committed and a police officer, an insurance investigator and a software geek are trying to get to the bottom of an affair that keeps getting more and more complicated. As in Rising Sun, inquiries are quelled or at least hampered by political interference, by executives’ and politicians’ schemes and manipulations. In Stross’ 2007 novel, the Japanese are no longer the bad guys as they were in Crichton’s and other novels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s (as can be expected) Chinese hackers on the payroll of the evil Chinese government that are the enemy now. Actual people of Chinese descent barely make an appearance in the book, but that’s largely unimportant, since, as any racist will be able to tell you, it’s not the specific individual that attracts their rage, it’s the general idea of the foreign culture/race. ‘They’ are different, and ‘they’ are a threat. That’s the name of the game Charles Stross is more than happy to play.

Like Crichton, Stross leaves, of course, ample room for a denunciation of corporate greed. For both writers, this is an important element, because readers are just as likely to reject executives as grossly incompetent, stupid or gluttonous, as they are to reject foreigners as scheming, lazy or destructive, and both writers are engaged in an attempt to build an alliance with their readers built on shared prejudice. Stross even does Crichton one better. Unless I misremember, there is nothing in Crichton’s post-Sphere work that corresponds to what I like to call Stross’ trinity of identification. Stross’ three protagonists are Elaine Barnaby, a woman, who is drawn in a mildly clichéd but not aggressively sexist way, a smart and quirky closet geek. There is Jack Reed, the software engineer, who is the most knowledgeable of the three, constantly explaining facts about the technological background, a nerd who likes to drink, is shy around women, and incredibly smart. The third narrator and protagonist is Sue Smith, a police officer, and representative of a whole strain of elements that crop up all over the book. Thing is, Halting State, a book about the global world of hackers, espionage and online gaming, is rooted in a weird sort of patriotism tinged with localism. It’s set in Edinburgh, and reflects its Scottish background in multiple ways. For starters, there’s Sue, who speaks/writes a mild sort of Scots-inflected English, which stands out among the verbal offerings of the other characters. It is Sue’s point of view that foregrounds most a contrast between locals and foreigners, because in Halting State, only Scottish citizens are truly locals, and Jack and Elaine, the two English geeks, are always slightly out of place. The book crawls with comments about how little the streets and facades of Edinburgh have changed; this is accompanied by comments about the specific/unique relationship that this Scottish metropolis has with the modern world outside. In a way, Stross reproduces the larger discursive concerns that power books like Crichton’s and includes a miniature model of them, localized in terms of references and language. And it’s all so incredibly well made! Halting State is a stunningly crafted thriller, but a mediocre, fifth rate work of science fiction. If the genre did not also contain writers like Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville, Adam Roberts or Vernor Vinge (who, by the way, praises Halting State), I might be worried. There is much to admire in this book, and compared to other, let’s say, thrillers, it would stand out. In its own genre, however, it’s its deficiencies that stand out starkly. If you want a quick, good read by a writer with a good grasp of current technology and excellent command of a certain kind of narrative, this book is highly recommended. If you want something more, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

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*A lot of Crichton’s books can of course be categorized as science fiction, among them probably Sphere or Jurassic Park (incl. sequels). I’d argue, and in a way that is what I’m doing in this review, that Crichton’s main influence and the genre he mainly belongs to is the thriller genre. He may use a SF tool now and then, but they are just props. Crichton’s intentions and visions are those of a mainstream thriller writer, and his approach is the same in Jurassic Park, Next, Rising Sun or any other of his best known works. Finally this: what I take to be the core of the Science Fiction genre I laid out in my first paragraph. It’s a different kind of approach to seeing the world. Iris Murdoch wrote in The Book and the Brotherhood about Marxism: “The only good Marxist is a mad Marxist. It’s not enough to be a revisionist, you’ve got to be a bit mad too – to be able to see the present world, to imagine the magnitude of what’s happening.” I think this madness is necessary for good science fiction, as well, this imagination of possibilities and impossibilities. This is true for space operas, hard sf, cyberpunk, steampunk or the straight madness of Dick’s later novels. The best test for good SF is this: if you take away the odd objects, and the unfamiliar settings, are the texts in front of you still different from mainstream fiction? In my review’s first paragraph I suggest they should be, and any of the authors I mentioned appraisingly in this review have produced works for which that is indeed the case. It is not true for Halting State which is powered by the same visionary black hole that brought forth Michael Crichton’s works. A reader on a literature forum suggested that part of the book were a straight yet awkward pastiche of Ian Rankin‘s books. I would not be surprised to find that to be the case, although I haven’t been able to sample Mr. Rankin’s work yet.

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