Thoughts on the 2008 Hugo Nominees for Best Novel: Halting State

Halting State is about virtual reality, but not so much about the marvel as much as about the societal and cultural implications of working in or playing outside of the real world—or, indeed, walking with one foot in both the real and virtual worlds. In the world of Halting State, virtual reality and reality aren’t just mirrors of one another—they interact and are inseparable (without breaking down into “nothing is really real!” nonsense). When a story starts with a bank robbery in, essentially, World of Warcraft, you know you’re in for a ride down the real and unreal, so to speak.

If I had to name one thing that I love about Charles Stross’s work: he can really speak to the cubicle monkey in all of us. Although the story is told through three different main characters, the heart of Halting State is Jack Reed, a video games programmer who’s just been laid off. The theme of isolation hand-in-hand with virtual reality beats through all three view points, but they circle hardest around Jack.

Which is not to say that Sue Smith, a police officer, and Elaine Barnaby, an insurance lawyer, don’t play important roles; when the former operates in virtual CopSpace with her peers, and the latter engages in medieval re-enactment and spy LARPing as hobbies, there’s no question that the motif of their encounters with the crossings of “real” reality and virtual reality is set up as distinct counterpoint to Jack’s theme most of the plot—and the climax where the motif and the theme collapse into one state is unexpected.

Some people have noted the use of second person and present tense throughout the novel seems weird and even off-putting, but those mechanics fit neatly into the theme of the work—as well as the fact that Stross has the writing chops to carry it off. Stross’s use of second person both seats the reader intimately in the story—and yet he makes it clear that the reader and the point of view character are distinct. Virtual reality, in other words. I like that he started off with Sue’s Scottish accent, because that’s a clear signal that the second person POV and you-the-reader are not to be confused with one another.

The ending of Halting State (which begins and ends with impish emails) felt a bit rushed to me; not enough cleaning up after the climax. Still, the book is brilliant, and very much a contender in the 2008 line-up.

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