Sunday, August 2, 2015

Halting State

Charles Stross
Completed 7/13/2015, Reviewed 7/15/2015
2 stars

Steve (You think you’re being so smart)

The first thing that hits you about “Halting State” is that it is writing in second person present.  This means that you are the character.  And just like this review, you’re the narrator.  You think this might be fun, a form you’ve never experienced before, except in math problems where you have two apples and someone gives you two more…  But your interest in the form fades as you discover that the narration alternates between three character and what passes as prose leaves you confused and angry through most of the book.

Your gist of the plot is that it reminds you of standard non-genre best seller intrigue.  In the near future, a virtual robbery takes place in a game owned and operated by Hayek Associates.  They call the cops.  Officer Sue is the first to arrive, trying to wrap her head around the need for local police involvement in a virtual crime.  Hayek’s insurance company sends Elaine, an auditor/game player and Jack, a power game developer/player to determine if there is fraud to avoid paying the insurance money.  During these three characters’ investigations, they expose an international plot linked to espionage and terrorism.  You guess what makes this book genre is that it takes place in the near future where there are video cameras everywhere, cars and taxis are driverless, and google vision is ubiquitous. 

Your problems begin in the first chapter.  Officer Sue is the narrator.  She thinks in future cop jargon.  And she thinks a lot.  What passes for prose in this book is that the narrator begins speaking, pauses for a paragraph of jargon thought, then finishes speaking.  This makes most of the text feel like an aside.  It’s supposed to help carry the mystery of who’s behind the bank robbery and what the real implications are.  Instead, it makes every paragraph heavy and complicated. 

In the second chapter, Elaine the auditor is the narrator.  Now you have to switch perspective, trying to separate your experience as Elaine from Sue.  She comes with a new set of jargon and thought processes.  Finally, Jack the developer is the narrator.  He thinks in game and programming jargon.  Juggling these three points of view is exhausting.  Despite the chapter headings indicating who you are, it takes you a few pages to completely switch your perspective, making you reread sections multiple times to make sure you correctly understand who you are and what you just read. 

About halfway through the book, you’re over it.  You force yourself to get to the big reveal.  The complexities of the plot and are lost on you because of the form.  It reminds you of Chabon’s “Yiddish Policeman’s Union”, where the prose was distracting rather than helpful in the world and character building.  You also believe that not being a gamer is a big hindrance in your understanding of what’s going on a lot of the time.  In contrast, you love Cline’s “Ready Player One”, which was about arcade games from the ‘80s, where your gaming experience began and ended. 

You really wanted to give this book one star out of five, because your experience with it was so terrible.  You think you’ll never read anything in second person present again.  But you give it two, because you appreciate the author’s ability to carry the plot through three very different perspectives, even though it was lost on you.  

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