When an army of Orcs rob a bank, you’re know you’re in for a good time. So who thinks it’s worthwhile to raid the central bank of the gameworld Avalon Four? Sue, an Edinburgh cop, Elaine, a forensic auditor, and Jack, a gaming programmer, are called together to find out. Throw in corporate backstabbing, terror threats, and international espionage, and enjoy Halting State, by Charles Stross.
The moment what seems a game draws Jack and Elaine into real-world danger, I knew I wasn’t putting the book down. Sure enough, the last 150 pages flew by, until I finished the book after 1 am. Any time a book keeps me up like that, I know I’ve found something that pushes the right buttons. There are two things, however, that push the wrong buttons.
The more obvious wrong button is the second person point of view. I suppose the element of gaming and roleplaying justifies it, and I appreciate the experiment, but I never entirely stopped noticing it. The worst was at the beginning of each chapter, when I had to remind myself of who was up next, and every time, the “you,” “you,” “you” jumped out at me. I’m sure the intent was to encourage me to identify with the characters, but I felt more like I was watching them.
The other wrong button is the barely distinguishable characters. Of the three, Sue is the most identifiable, with her strong Scottish accent. Also she works in a very different world from the other two. Elaine and Jack are both nerds at heart. Jack is more screwed up, and Elaine has her quirks, but as they work together, their voices blur. There are several times when more than one character would use the exact same phrase to remark on things.
The combination of second person and blurred characters left me disoriented at the beginning of each chapter. It helps that the viewpoints change in strict rotation. It helps that each chapter is titled with a Name:Title format. It really helps that the chapters have great titles, like “Sue: Grand Theft Automatic”, so you pay attention. Despite these compensations, the structures imposed upon the text don’t quite overcome the flaws within the text.
But even the issues with second person intrigue me enough to make me want to find other books that use it. And there’s so much in this book to reward you as the various levels of reality mingle, from RPGs to virtual worlds to copspace to LARPs to historical swordplay. So here’s where I stick my neck out, way out since I’ve only read a few SF books from 2007, but this is my pick for the Hugo.
Tomorrow: The Black Knight has a machine gun!