You Wonder What The Author Was Thinking

by Sonia Mitchell

Sonia learns an important moral lesson about impulse buying, with Charles Stross's Halting State.
Uh-oh! This is in the Axis of Awful...
~
From the blurb, and the little card on the shelf telling me that a bookseller recommended it, I thought Charles Stross’s novel Halting State sounded good enough for an impulse buy on a 3 for 2 offer. Seduced by the fun little pixel people on the cover, and the intriguing description, I didn’t even take the elementary precaution of reading a few pages.

If I’d bothered, I might have noticed this book’s major failing. It’s written in the second person.

Second person is good for some things. Choose Your Own Adventure books, text adventure games... interactive fiction, basically. I can only presume that Stross is attempting a homage to such games, but in doing so he does seem to miss the point using the style. The principle advantage to the second person is that it lets you place yourself – or a character of your choosing - in the story. Combined with the ability to make choices, this give you a lot of freedom in the way you follow the plot. Zork never told me what I thought of the thief, only what he looked like. It was up to me whether I wanted to try killing or kissing him. The game made very few assumptions about me, other than that I was mobile, able to carry things and able to perform those actions that it recognised. The internet tells me that later in the series you’re satirically addressed as AFGNCAAP - Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally-Ambiguous Adventure Person - though as I’ve been stuck on Zork II for years I’ve never had the pleasure of that address. At any rate, the freedom to choose your own character helps the player immerse themselves in the game in ways that can never happen when you’re guiding Mario on his way to find the princess. (There are exceptions, of course. The Hitchhiker’s infocom game has you playing in the second person as characters from the series, but that’s the point of the game and you come into it knowing what you’re going to get).

Basically, while second person has its advantages, they centre around making the reader a participant. This novel doesn’t even bother to try doing that, instead trying to balance three characters’ viewpoints. You jump from being a female police sergeant, a female insurance investigator and a male computer programmer. The latter, incidentally, is harbouring Dark Secrets that work really fucking well in the second person, when you keep thinking about the Dark Secrets without ever being able to articulate them into actual thoughts.

It’s difficult to get past the second person problem and review any other aspects of the plot, but I will just in case you’re intrigued by the blurb and decide to risk it. I’m going to have to spoil it, but without apology because I believe I’m doing you a favour. Also because I stuck with the book right to the end and I need to make it worthwhile somehow.

The near-future novel claims to be about an apparently impossible raid which takes place in a World of Warcraft-style game. The virtual treasures stolen in this raid have real world value, and the book supposedly deals with the real world consequences of what happened in the game. To me, that sounded pretty awesome. A novel about games and computer crime should have been fun, and the aforementioned little pixel people on the cover also contributed to my impression that the book would be a light and enjoyable look at gaming. The actual focus, though, is more on insider trading and various bit of European politics that presumably fit together somehow. There’s a board of stereotypical fat-cats, and one of them did something bad while another one’s a goody. I couldn’t tell you which is which, despite the Big Revelation of the bad guy.

Oh, and incidentally Scotland now has its independence, which is really good, and England is doing quite badly as a result for reasons that never become clear. Something about the English reaping what they sowed. Don’t worry about remembering this though, as the text will be sure to remind you. Inexplicably, it even reminds you when you’re currently the English woman, who somehow connects the failing tube system with the closing of the borders. I think. To be frank, I was getting a bit annoyed with the book by then, so I may be misremembering.

As another incidentally, this is the future, so everyone wears FutureGlasses, as possibly seen in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in the seventies. They allow the wearer to be connected to whatever network they’re engaging with, such as CopSpace (okay, FutureGlasses was facetious. CopSpace, unfortunately, is Stross’s actual term) or the game they’re playing. They’re also got various recording devices built in and overlay nicely with the real world most of the time. Bizarrely, despite the fact that people walk around with computers on their faces, ‘geek’ is still used as a pejorative.

Do you need another ‘incidentally’? How about the fact that the insurance investigator also specialises in sword fighting and conveniently impulse buys a broadsword which is not mentioned again until a bad guy needs sorting out in her hotel room? Yeah, I’m getting a hit cross writing all this. I spent money on this book. The excessive programming language doesn’t really help, either, especially as I suspect that since this is set in the future some of it’s made up. I could be wrong, though, as Stross’s own background is in programming. Either way, he overkills on the acronyms and abbreviations for my layperson’s taste.

Even without the massive problem of the second person, this wouldn’t be a great book. Which is a shame, because the initial idea was pretty promising, and I’m still open to the idea that a story about a MMORPG could be fun. Unfortunately the plot of this book turns out to be quite dull, and from time to time it just gets irritating. There are good moments and interesting points – an exciting scene in which two of the characters had to escape from a remotely-controlled taxi is a high point - and I did get quite absorbed in the book at times, but I can’t recommend it to anyone else. There’s just too much working against it.

Ultimately, Halting State is readable, but I’m still stuck on my initial question of why anyone would write a book in the second person. It’s such a bad technique that I’ve felt justified telling people about the book in social situations, and the only other books I tend to do that with are the latter volumes of King’s Dark Tower series (for reasons that will become very clear if the reading canary ever tackles them). Even when you get sucked into the book enough to overlook it, next time you pick it up you’ll get that jolt all over again. Surely someone along the publishing process raised an eyebrow when they saw what they were producing?

Morbid curiosity, however, is rarely a good reason to pick up a book, and I don’t suggest you do it. And kids - always glance at the first few pages before you buy.
~

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~
Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 10:21 on 2009-02-04
I'm glad (glad in the schadenfreude sense of the word) you read this ... the cover has been attracting me from Borders for a while now and it was just a matter of time until I picked it up. I have such a terrible habit of judging books by their covers - I might make a theme for it, actually :) I'm not sure I can actually think of (m)any books about gaming / virtual worlds that aren't entirely made of stupid, or offensive in some other way...
Arthur B at 10:23 on 2009-02-04
It’s such a bad technique that I’ve felt justified telling people about the book in social situations, and the only other books I tend to do that with are the latter volumes of King’s Dark Tower series (for reasons that will become very clear if the reading canary ever tackles them).

Maybe it will, but it'll have to be someone else doing it; I can smell the stench of King's solipsism from a mile off.

The England/Scotland thing seems especially bizarre. It's like someone needs to sit down with Stross and draw a diagram of where the taxes come from and where the taxes go...
Wardog at 10:24 on 2009-02-04
But dude! You've forgotten what the English did to Mel Gibson!!
Andy G at 14:30 on 2009-02-04
I do know two good things that address the reader directly, but neither of them are full-length books written completely in the second person. One is "If on a winter's night a traveller" which is all about readers of books so it makes a lot of sense, and the other is a German short story where the point of the direct address is not so much to involve the reader as a participant as to characterise the reassuring, mysterious voice talking to someone as their life flashes before their eyes (it's more like overhearing it talking to someone else). Definitely something you need to have a good reason to do though – and not something to do badly. Why do you think it was being attempted here?
Rami at 15:38 on 2009-02-04
I have to admit everything I've read from Stross has been great, and in most cases his fascinating ideas have been good enough for me to forgive the slightly idealistic political allegory. But writing the book in the second person... well, I'm disappointed in him. Especially if it's all about MMORPGs, and full of slightly silly Scots nationalism (yes, Mr Stross, we know you're proud to be Scottish).

I am mildly curious about him working programmer-ish language into a book without ruining it for non-programmers, though. I shall have to leaf through the book in Borders at some point. Perhaps there will be geek in-jokes that redeem the book somewhat.
Sonia Mitchell at 21:20 on 2009-02-04
"Why do you think it was being attempted here?"

I'm not entirely sure. The book has a theme of the erosion of boundaries between the real and the virtual, so I suspect that by casting the reader as participant Stross was trying to play with the real/made-up boundary. If that's what he was aiming for, though, it wasn't effective on me.
Or maybe he just hates his readers.
Sonia Mitchell at 21:21 on 2009-02-04
Kyra - Love the new category :-)
Dan H at 21:55 on 2009-02-04
I can actually think of (m)any books about gaming / virtual worlds that aren't entirely made of stupid, or offensive in some other way...

Aren't they usually made of stupid *and* offensive, in exactly the same way every time, to wit:

"Okay, right, so the core idea of this book is that ... like *games* ... right take place in ... like ... worlds. But the *real* world is ... like ... also a world so ... like ... people who play games must get ... like ... confused about what's real and what isn't."

Why yes, I am still bitter about The Sword of Maximum Damage.
Shim at 23:17 on 2009-02-04
Offhand, do you know of any stories that work the opposite way round? Ignoring Jumanji/Zathura, I mean... I'm picturing 'exported' characters wandering round casually smashing objects in the search for powerups, jumping on people's heads or demanding quests from people in the Lamb and Flag...

If they're going for that "core idea", of course, then the in-game characters should also be influenced by real-world stuff. "Sorry, I can't slay the Lord of the Ogres and free your children, I've got laundry to do."
Arthur B at 01:04 on 2009-02-05
Otherland by Tad Williams is in theory about virtual entities manipulating the real world whilst real people simultaneously invade the virtual world.

In practice it is about Tad Williams giving an airing to some of his undeveloped story ideas (including honest to god Wizard of Oz fanfiction) before slapping us all about the face with a deus ex machina and declaring the story over.
Wardog at 11:20 on 2009-02-05
And there's always Snowcrash of course...
Arthur B at 11:40 on 2009-02-05
Ah, Snow Crash. Where sneaking through the enemy's base camp is the best possible time to have a long chat online about a sub-William Burroughs bicameral mind language virus...

Though to give it its due, the Metaverse of Snow Crash is probably the most accurate envisioning of Second Life-style virtual worlds the cyberpunk movement ever produced, mainly because Stephenson realised that some people would just make their avatars giant purple cocks. Which doesn't mean it lacks its share of stupid and offensive content (anti-rape devices which only work if you're already being raped!).
Sonia Mitchell at 16:54 on 2009-02-07
I rather like the way the computer game in Ender's Game is handled, come to think of it. The unnerving wavering of the line between worlds and the perplexed way the adults try to get a handle on Ender's in-game behaviour are pretty interesting.
Wardog at 10:44 on 2009-02-09
Re the new category, yay :) I'm actually always surprised to note how horribly suspectible I am to book covers. I've always secretly feared this made me an inherently shallow person but I'm reassured to know that you do it too :)

~Ah, Snow Crash. Where sneaking through the enemy's base camp is the best possible time to have a long chat online about a sub-William Burroughs bicameral mind language virus...

From what I have heard, and the little I have read of him, this seems to be Stephenson's problem in a nutshell. His books are so enslaved to the ideas at their core that they're, um, kind of the opposite of books.

I have to confess, I lose all my genre points because I haven't actually read Ender's Game...
Arthur B at 11:06 on 2009-02-09
this seems to be Stephenson's problem in a nutshell. His books are so enslaved to the ideas at their core that they're, um, kind of the opposite of books.

It wouldn't be so bad in Snow Crash, except that the idea he chooses to obsess over happens to be the least interesting one he presents in it... franchise nationality? The internet as a shallow pit of wish-fulfilment? (Man, did he call that one...) Stateless communities based on lashed-together ships in international waters? Pizza delivery tanks? Snow Crash is stuffed with cool shit; unfortunately, it all gets shoved bodily offstage every time the origins of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind waddles its fat, pasty, historically inaccurate, cribbed from Burroughs arse onstage to do its ludicrous little dance and spout its silly little monologues. How I hate that creature.

I've not read Ender's Game all the way through, and I was kind of uninspired by what I read of it; I wonder if it isn't the sort of books that has the best impact if you read it at just the right age, and preferably around the same time the book came out...
Wardog at 11:14 on 2009-02-09
The internet as a shallow pit of wish-fulfilment

It seems like a pretty deep pit to me - I'm a big fan :)
Rami at 16:14 on 2009-02-09
Heh, am I the only one on here who has read Ender's Game? Granted, it was a few years ago, and I actually read it after its sequel. I thought it fell a bit flat, but if you skip it and just read Ender's Shadow you might like it -- there's a lot more going on in the book, a rather more interesting main character, and all the plot points of the first...
Andy G at 20:21 on 2009-02-09
I have read it! Do I get some sort of prize?
Wardog at 12:29 on 2009-02-10
Yes, yes you do.

You get ... um ...
Arthur B at 14:09 on 2009-02-10
...Mormonism! Delicious, delicious Mormonism...
The second person was nearly enough to drive me away in the first chapter. I hate being told what I feel or think. Unbelievably irritating. And it only gets worse when you jump to another character in the next. I think there could be a case made for it if it had been better implemented, but i wasn't expecting it and it threw me.

The rest of the complaints didn't bother me much though. If you read it as a story about the future of the IT society it's quite interesting and fun. It seems that you are pulling the book apart based on what you wanted it to be, rather than what it is.

For example: CopSpace is a terrible name but it brings together the ideas of the internet of things, ubiquitous computing, augmented reality etc etc quite well. The story then allows discussion of how such technologies might get used, their benefits, their flaws and also the wider ranging implications for society...

It's a similar thought experiment about most of the issues with online activity, and how they will only become more important. For me, that's interesting.

On another note - the pixel people were enough to put me off the buying the book entirely, rather than an attraction. If my brother hadn't lent it to me, I would never have read it.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:11 on 2009-02-21
Hi bitterlittleman, thanks for the comments. I'm glad you managed better than me in getting past the second person problem.

It seems that you are pulling the book apart based on what you wanted it to be, rather than what it is.

Good point, but I think the book did make promises it veered from. I expected a fun gaming read because of the incident it began with, because of the blurb (though I appreciate that was written by marketing people rather than the author) and because of the cover. I wasn't led to expect a board-room book, and I wouldn't have read it if I'd known.
So I'll concede I have prejudices against the genre it turned out to be, but I don't think the book should have disguised itself as another genre.

It's a similar thought experiment about most of the issues with online activity, and how they will only become more important. For me, that's interesting.

In general I agree, but in this specific case I think it was badly handled. The idea that the future of IT is in computerised glasses seems outdated and unlikely to me. The remote controlled taxis, on the other hand, rang true, and I think Stross does have some good ideas in the book. I would perhaps pick up something else of his (after checking the viewpoint this time).
Glasses maybe, but the actual idea of copspace... Not outdated or unlikely. Take your smart camera phone, pair it with your location and relevant databases, and output.

http://apple20.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2008/09/23/androids-first-killer-feature-compass-mode/

(sorry, first example i found, its 2am.)

Once you want that kind of data on a heads up display to keep your hands free, glasses start to be more practical...

I'd say that we're way closer to CopSpace than autonomous vehicles like the taxi's described. For reference, I did information engineering, including modules on autonomous vehicles, intelligent systems (AI) and computer vision. My masters project was a combination.
Wardog at 14:40 on 2009-02-21
Hmmm...possibly I'm looking at this in too shallow a light and I certainly don't pretend to be any kind of future-tech commenter but it occurs to me that any technology that would make you look lame (e.g. computer glasses) will never catch on ;)
Arthur B at 15:59 on 2009-02-21
I think the key point is this:

Once you want that kind of data on a heads up display to keep your hands free, glasses start to be more practical...

Which is sort of the issue; how many applications are there where it's more practical to have a load of distracting crap appear in your glasses?

It's also worth noting that HUDs have existed for a while, and I think it's noteworthy that the information they present:

- Is presented in a very sparse style. You don't want this information to actually get in the way of something you might bump into.
- Is related exclusively to the task at hand. Distracting car drivers or aircraft pilots with ephemera while they fly is a no-no.
- Relate entirely to the operation of vehicles.

Basically, I think the uses of HUDs for pedestrians are going to be extremely limited.
Shim at 20:19 on 2009-02-21
I could see the odd extra use for them, at least in a story. Traffic police could have HUDs that flashed up speed, vehicle tax status, and checked vehicles against police records. Security guards, scuffers and bouncers might have something that matched your face to records of troublemakers, or scanned and tagged you for possible weapons. Warehouse foremen or car park wardens could have HUDs to help identify each item and navigate around. Workers in sewers, mines or other confusing places could have HUD maps and compasses (like in a game). Or if you were doing pure information work (coding, examining photos or something) you might use them to avoid distractions.

It all rather depends on what other gear you're packing, though. I mean, if your HUD can detect RFID tags, or contain X-ray scanners, or spot and label problems with machinery, that's useful. If they just display the latest headlines, less so.
Arthur B at 01:02 on 2009-02-22
But I think it's also worth considering whether it's more useful to have this sort of stuff on your glasses or some other surface. With the traffic police, it's surely more useful to just project the information onto the windscreen or something. With security guards and bouncers, I'm not sure putting this stuff on something that might get ripped off/smashed in a scuffle is necessrily a smart move.

Also, if you happen to be longsighted, there's obvious problems with trying to read something that's projected onto the inside of your glasses...
And, voila, discussion about interesting ideas of how this technology might work and the effects it would have... Stuff people might like to read about... in a book?

And Kyra... Mobile phones? Wtf? Bricks with no battery life... who the hell would want one of those stuck to the side of their face... oh wait....
Wardog at 20:10 on 2009-02-22
And Kyra... Mobile phones? Wtf? Bricks with no battery life... who the hell would want one of those stuck to the side of their face... oh wait....

Yeah, who would...
Wardog at 20:15 on 2009-02-22
Also, actually, being serious for a split second here and putting my ludditism aside - mobile phones only really took off when their utility was met by their aesthetic. I have seen grown men actually caressing their I-phones.
Wardog at 20:17 on 2009-02-22
And, voila, discussion about interesting ideas of how this technology might work and the effects it would have... Stuff people might like to read about... in a book

Books providing fodder for discussion is rarely connected to literary value. Look at JK Rowling.
Rami at 16:57 on 2009-02-23
If you read it as a story about the future of the IT society it's quite interesting and fun

I've found that to be the case with everything Stross writes -- in this case, from what I'm seeing here, the vehicle for these ideas might be a bit lacking.

The idea that the future of IT is in computerised glasses seems outdated and unlikely to me

Well, the idea's not novel -- the first time I came across it was in the 90s, and even Stross has been playing with it since 2005.

Projecting things onto your glasses would be easier and cheaper than putting them in contact lenses or implanting them into your retina, which are AFAIK fairly well-known SF tropes (@Arthur: while it's non-trivial I think it would be perfectly doable to adjust the focus of the projection to be perfectly clear to your eyesight), and I for one think it's pretty cool and wish we had the commercially-available technology to do that today. Presumably, once the glasses are developed, you could stick a Bluetooth receiver into them and then have them interface with everything from your mobile phone to, as Shimmin suggests, an X-ray scanner...
Orion at 00:38 on 2015-02-18
What does bi-cameral mean in this context?
Arthur B at 10:52 on 2015-02-18
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