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Halting State by Charles Stross
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441014989
Date: 02 October 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Penguin's Page on Halting State / Show Official Info /

A bank heist in a massive multi-player online game's bank brings together an interesting assortment of investigators, including a game designer who was once convicted of a sex crime for underage petting, a police detective who's having trouble wrapping her mind around the seriousness of virtual theft, and a seriously out-of-her-depth bank auditor. They're looking for a hacker who reminds them very much of someone they know; if they could only put their finger on who that is. Poking around inside cyberspace and throughout independent Scotland makes a lot of people very nervous, and not just because some play money went missing. One of Stross' best, which is pretty good considering he's consistently brilliant.

One day in Scotland, or as nearly in Scotland as anywhere in cyberspace actually is, a dragon broke into an unbreakable vault and made off with a lot of money. Play money in a virtual vault perhaps, but not valueless play money. Game currency with substantial real-world valuation. It takes the police a bit of mental gymnastics to understand this point, but ultimately they do, though they're not quite sure what to do about it.

Private industry is a bit quicker on the uptake, starting with the insurance underwriters for Hayek Associates, the security company whose job it is to keep things like this from happening. The underwriters decide they need to do a bank audit in virtual space and assign their nerdiest gal, Elaine Barnaby, to the job. Elaine may be a bit nerdish, in a bookish sort of way, but she knows her limitations going in. Now, it happens that the lead programmer from Hayek Associates has gone missing, so the forgone conclusion is that this is an inside job. Elaine suggests brightly, "Let's pull this missing guy's CV and hire someone just like him so (she's) got a native guide." And up pops Jack Reed into the box they've created ... a nearly perfect match to the missing man. When they arrive in Edinburgh, Sergeant Sue Smith realizes that the duo are her only chance to get a clue, and attaches herself to them for the investigation. The game, as they say, is afoot.

Stross leads us on a merry chase through real and virtual space, up blind alleys and down darkly secret passageways lined with all manner of good guys and bad guys acting in ignorance of what their own organizations are doing. As the investigation continues, we discover that a bank robbery is the smallest of concerns, all things considered. I really want to tell you about the wheels within wheels in this story, but there's no way to do it without spoiling the fun.

Stross is consistently on about clever geeks working for government agencies keeping the world out of danger. In his brilliant Laundry stories, like the recent (and fabulous) The Jennifer Morgue, we get a full-blown Bond pastiche, with elements of both fantasy and science fiction. Here the genre elements have been played down to draw a wider audience, but it doesn't hurt the story a wit.

My only gripe is the perennial problem with writing fifteen minutes into the future. Bank robberies in virtual space aren't willing to wait for the day after tomorrow. Last November, Second Life Update reported that "A string of bank robberies has hit Second Life. Hackers in Second Life have stolen 3.2 million (Linden dollars). This is almost twelve thousand dollars United States currency."

Well, at least they waited until the book was on the shelves. (Note: I fully expect to find out that no, they didn't. Feel free to set the record straight.) But don't be distracted by that; the bottom line here is that Stross does near-future tech as well as or better than anyone in the game ... including Gibson, Sterling, and Doctorow.

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