The Girl Geek

{October 13, 2007}   Halting State by Charles Stross

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that makes me put my computer down. Although I’m not finished with it, Halting State is shaping up to be an awesome thriller/mystery. The book is (at first) told from the point of view of Sergeant Sue Smith in Scotland in the year 2018. There are a few differences from their time and ours that can be pointed out just from the opening prologue. Heck, the prologue is subtitled “We know where you live, we know where your dog goes to school.” It’s set up as a recruitment email to a Nigel from Round Peg Round Hole. The email set-up goes like this:

Subject: Attn Nigel—Job Offer
Auto-Summary: A job offer, vaguely menacing.
Spam-Weighting: 70% probable, but worth a look.

I seriously would love it if our emails would tell us an auto-summary and a spam-weighting. It makes this book interesting from the opening pages to see how technology would help us in their world. However, once you get past the fact that your email will save you trouble, you start reading about how much information Round Peg Round Hole has managed to scraped up on Nigel. The most important quote of that entire prologue is: “We know all about you, Nigel.” This is creepy. As you read on throughout the prologue are items that an office watercooler would only know, and even then, these people found out your thoughts, ideals, and feelings. Then they offer you a job tailored to your loves (“Your obsession with reward feedback loop modulation,”) and dislikes (“Not to mention the opportunity to stick it to Bill so hard he’ll be picking pieces out of his back teeth for years to come,”) in a way only a spam bot could (“To claim your new job… reply to this email…”)

Creepy. Just creepy. And that prologue is only three pages long! The first chapter explains the background of the main character, Sue. It explains how crimes are given ratings based on how bad they are, and then the police will come out based on such. The crime you hear about is rated at grade four. Grade 3 means that the police will be there asap, whereas grade 4 means that, in essence, the police will be there within four hours to take statements when they’re bored. Sue and the partner she’s babysitting decide to go to the grade four crime because they were bored. And it has to deal with a company being robbed. The details of the crime are less than great.

Hayek Associates, a newly formed company located in a nuclear bunker, was robbed by Orcs and a Dragon. Well, not literally. I’m sorry to inform everyone out there that our future doesn’t hold us changing or meeting Orcs and creating real Dragons. However, as the book explains, Hayek Associates hold the position of the Federal Reserve Bank (in U.S. terms, of course) in the online world of Avalon Four. They run the mini-economy on Avalon Four because of the worth of virtual money and products in the real world. Due to an increase of players in A.F., in-game inflation has skyrocketed, where the only way you can get the armor and weaponry you need is to pay for it in the real world with cash. Since it’d negatively affect business for the people who run A.F. and Hayek, the people who manage the economy of it, they decided to find ways to take money out of the world while not affecting the player’s perspective. That being said, the band of Orcs and a Dragon went to the location of the virtual bank in-game, and against all odds and game programming laws, robbed the main bank of all the money and items. So Sue has to investigate a virtual robbery.

I’ve gotten more out of the Sue/Hayek chapters, but I don’t want to ruin the first 61 pages for you. However, there are other chapters that include two different characters, Elaine and Jack. Elaine is a virtual-game loving associate with a company who is pulled onto a case that has to deal with fishy investments. It can safely be assumed that she’s just a lowly associate who was given the Tiger Investments case to deal with because she plays video games. Not much is given about the case yet and how Tiger Investments is related to Hayek Associates. Jack is a different story completely. He woke up and found himself handcuffed to a chair outside of a store with a broken window in Amsterdam. Eventually the cops find him there, arrest him, and take him off to jail. After sobering up a bit, he realizes how crappy his life just became.

There is more, and I’m not too sure of the connections between Jack and the rest of the groups involved in the story. However, it is full of terms that we understand. Although IM-ing hasn’t gone past keeping in touch with friends, it’s become the way of choice that police officers communicate in Scotland. And even though Paypal hasn’t done much more than pay for eBay items, Paypal has become a way to pay off fines in a city, and eBay has become the haven of game-item resellers. There’s plenty more in there about RFID’s, and other questionable security measures we have now (and don’t want to have). Thanks to for letting me know this book was out here, and Charles Stross has the prologue and the first three chapters available online for your enjoyment.


et cetera