Halting State is the book William Gibson's Spook Country should have been. For one thing, it's actually about what it would (will?) be like to live in a true spook country, where nearly every vestige of privacy you thought you might have had is nothing but vapor. And not only is this a situation that people have come to accept, it's one in which they are active participants and enablers. Charlie's stroke of genius here is in his story's use of massively multiplayer online games (MMORPGs) as a tool by which governments and their shadowy intelligence apparatuses recruit "useful idiots," unwary meat-puppet operatives who do the dirty work of infiltrating networks while under the belief they're just running around hacking up goblins in a virtual gaming environment, thereby allowing the Powers That Be whatever plausible deniability they wish.
Stross has never been a writer who goes easy on readers whose eyes glaze over at the liberal application of techie jargon. While he may be limiting his audience to folks with the kind of IT/programming/computer background necessary for fullest understanding of the concepts he introduces here, I think he still does an admirable job of making his narrative accessible for the bulk of readers who haven't a clue what goes on under their computer's hood and don't care as long as they can check their email and surf MySpace and download porn all they like. If anything, a book like Halting State sounds the klaxon that — fictitious though the scenario here may be — everyone ought to make themselves just a little more knowledgable about what the wired generation really means, not just to you, but to global economies and geopolitics, and the alarmingly easy reach tech-savvy terrorists might have to being a few mouse-clicks away from destabilizing whole nations. Forewarned is forearmed. And while there's no sense in going all alarmist and paranoid about things (except inasmuch as it makes for cracking storytelling), real life security concerns really exist, and one would be naive to think the worst dangers stop at identity theft and pirating movies.
The story opens in the very near future in Edinburgh, where police sergeant Sue Smith is called in to investigate a bank robbery. The catch is, the robbery has taken place, not in the real world, but in gamespace, in the online environment of Avalon Four, an enormously popular MMO. A band of marauding orcs plus one big dragon have virtually invaded a virtual bank and virtually made off with all manner of virtual loot. It seems absurd at first, until the possibility of very real corporate espionage is raised. In-game assets can make you real-world money. (I'm a casual gamer, but not an MMO guy, and I was personally stunned to hear some years ago that people were making some pretty damn good coin selling fully-developed high-level Everquest characters on eBay.) The bad news for Hayek Associates, the company whose job it is to oversee security issues for Avalon Four, is that once word gets out of the game's vulnerability and the loss of so much digital loot, the game loses players by the millions and everyone's stock prices take a nosedive.
Also drawn in to the unfolding mystery are Elaine Barnaby, an insurance investigator, and Jack Reed, a programmer and inveterate gaming geek who is offered an exorbitant fee to assist Elaine in getting to the bottom of Avalon Four's infiltration. Stross pulls out all stops as his thriller hits its thrilling stride, with red herrings and false leads drawing our confused heroes further and further down the rabbit hole, until it becomes clear that what's really going on behind the scenes isn't so much about mischievous gamers but most likely all about national security and some extraordinarily ambitious cyberterror. Some delicious paranoia enters the plot as Stross takes his themes to their startling ends: the sight of law enforcement reduced to communicating by pre-paid cell phones and typewriters due to fears the entire nationwide online network has been compromised by enemies of the state is more than a little sobering.
Fans of Stross's earlier technothrillers — this book reads in many ways like one of his Laundry stories played straight — will go nuts over Halting State. The zeitgeist-savvy incorporation of the gaming world as a central narrative motif is handled to perfection. (I especially got a kick out the scene set at a gaming convention, where, viewed through the glasses everyone wears to go online here, all attendees appear as their in-game avatars and even the convention hall itself is tricked out to look like some village marketplace from the realms of fantasy.) And if there's a reason I enjoyed Halting State only slightly less than, say, The Atrocity Archives or Glasshouse, it's because, by the time we get to the climax, Stross has perhaps allowed the whole thing to get just a bit too crazy-twisted, with the result that he falls back on a fairly conventional thriller ending. As in so many deliriously complex suspense yarns, we're treated here to a denouement featuring what I call the Big Explaino, that familiar scene in which, once the dust has settled, one character lays it all out for all the other characters (and us) and explains everything that's been going on in comfy exposition. My main objection to it here is that it was pretty much superfluous. As convoluted as this book's narrative gets, I never exactly got lost.
That lapse into the mundane notwithstanding, Halting State is another winner for Charles Stross, a writer who has more than ably grabbed the high-tech baton from last century's forebears — Gibson, Sterling — and is still running laps with it, without any sign of tiring. If reading it makes you just a little more anxious about all those anonymous folks lurking online, in chat rooms and gamespace, I'm sure it'll put a smile on Charlie's mug to know he's helped your paranoia strike deep.