Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Review: Halting State

I seem to have become a bit of a Charlie Stross junkie lately, but I think I've finally caught up to his latest output.

Halting State takes an interesting look at the MMORPG and the upcoming link to reality TV shows. What if a massively multi-player role-playing game intruded into your reality? Better yet, what if the usual alphabet soup of government agencies decided to use a massively multi-player role playing game as a recruiting tool for its purposes? What are its implications, and what might one look like?

The plot revolves around two main characters, Jack and Elaine. Jack is a game programmer who was recently laid off, and Elaine is a forensic account with an insurance firm. When a group of Orcs decide to perform a cyberheist involving the central bank of a company hosting such a gaming service, Elaine is asked to lead the investigation, and she asks for a programmer/consultant to guide her through the audit. Both Jack and Elaine are avid consumers of role playing games, historic re-enactment societies and the such, and their combination of skills enable them to dig into the investigation in a way that quickly becomes a matter of life and death for them.

The plot is entertaining, and very plausible. I enjoyed the description of the graphical role playing games and it is quite clear that Stross did his homework. References to griefing and non-PvP zones are made throughout without explanation, and the reader is never talked-down to. The characters themselves, however, are not that interesting, and perhaps behave a little bit too much like wooden stick figures made to fit the plot. Nevertheless, it works.

Perhaps the weakest part of the novel is that it is written entirely in the second person. The use of the second person is something entirely germane to the role playing game genre, of course, starting from the Choose Your Own Adventure books. But in this particular context, it feels wooden and contrived. Perhaps because as a PC, you would never so stupid as to fall into the kind of traps or emotional pitfalls that the characters would. As an artifice, this usage cheapens what is otherwise a very entertaining book.

The book starts off slowly, and it jars a bit as it switches viewpoints between the primary and secondary characters. After the first third, however, it steps into high gear and becomes an obsessive page turner, making this an ideal airplane novel, though it comes nowhere close to matching Stross' best work. Nevertheless, not a waste of time at all, especially if you're a gamer.
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