Impressions: Halting State Series

Just finished this duo of books (surely, if the rules of speculative fiction mean anything, soon to become a trilogy) by UK author Charles Stross. The books are an interesting near-future hybrid of a police procedural and tech thriller. The setting is a high-Tech Edinburgh, the contrasts between the old stone city and the new silicon society well sketched. Stross is an ex-Tech Journalist, and this comes through powerfully in the setting, as a huge array of currently speculative technologies have been woven neatly together into a cohesive whole, at the ground level of experience.

This is something that is quite important in worldbuilding and which in my opinion doesn’t get enough burn. The domestication of high technology is one of the most powerful practical impacts in speculative fiction.

If you’d written about the internet in the 60s, it would have been about scientists in universities changing society for the better (from the top down, obviously). In the 70s it would probably about secret computer networks held by the Government and Big Business trying to control the world. The reality about the domesticated internet today (as used by pretty much everyone) is in its own way far more profound. There is a temptation to look at the high-level without thinking about how a technology or new social relationship will play out at the coalface of human interrelations.

I digress slightly. The two standalone novels are set in a near-future, independent Republic of Scotland, and focus on two female policewomen. Stross paints policework as a very different beast to today’s coppers, very much focused on the idea of “Smart” policing, using a version of Google Glass that he basically invented before Google did. This is overlaid with “Copspace” a virtual map of people, places, police resources and various arcane sources of information. Stross paints a plugged-in world where LARPers unwittingly do the work of intelligence agencies and malware infects your 3D printers, making them produce nothing but brightly coloured dildoes unless you pay the malware company for a “cure”.

It’s a dizzying geek’s paradise (though hardly utopic), but Stross also manages to embed a reasonable plot or two in there as well. As one might expect, the “crimes” are embedded in the technology, and take either a good general knowledge of futurist concerns or a very close reading of the text in order to make sense of what is happening, who is doing it and what the likely consequences of the crimes are likely to be. Several times, police characters note that the law is now so complex they need decision-making software in order to aid them in bringing about the correct charges, and it’s a pity such software wasn’t supplied with the book as it can get a little overwhelming.

Having said that, there are some entirely orthodox murders and assaults that occur, so you won’t be totally at sea, even if you struggle with engaging the deeper themes. The criminals are nasty pieces of work (especially in Rule 34) and Stross’ characterisation is excellent, with his multilayered characters fleshing themselves out organically without heavy handed development or exposition. The occasional (but not overwhelming) use of Scots dialect also helps to create a distinct sense of place as opposed to a generic neon metropolis.

The other thing I should make mention of in these two books is the extensive use of Second Person, which works really well in providing a unique perspective for the various POV characters.  This provides an excellent way to convey ignorance and doubt for characters (which in a book as concept heavy as this, is a heavy requirement), as well as a way of keeping firmly within the single character’s perspective. Like First Person, you’re generally locked to one point of view for the section.

Overall, these books are very well written, with Stross’ coherent view of the future being well showcased and the issues he seeks to raise (cybersecurity, the surveillance state and the (mis)use of sovereignty in an interconnected world are well portrayed. The only criticism of the series that I can make is analogous to its strength, that Stross’ world is so well constructed and multifaceted that the reader can get lost in it and can’t the plot-essential exposition for the lovingly detailed worldbuilding.

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