World of online gamers
ACOMMON theme in science fiction novels is that we face a technological future in which the use of computers will extend to almost every facet of human existence. This subset of the science fiction genre, sometimes known as cyberpunk, can be unremittingly grim.
Halting State has much in common with these works. It is set in a Scotland only a decade or so into the future where everyone is networked and potentially vulnerable. Despite this, the novel offers a refreshing change of perspective.
Stross has written a book that extends the boundaries of the genre and is often extremely funny. Although his world is well- grounded and believable, Stross makes no attempt to take it too seriously. His three protagonists are flawed and quirky, and a source of constant humour. He allows readers to inhabit his characters through a stream- of- consciousness style and by writing in the second person, something often found in role- playing games.
Halting State is the best novel yet written that engages with the new phenomenon of online gaming. Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games ( MMORPGs to those in the know) have seen explosive growth since the late 1990s. These computer games allow people to take on characters, or avatars, and to live out a life with thousands of others in a persistent, imaginary, online world. They have an enormous following on the web and are often based on creations from other media such as Star Wars , Star Trek , Dungeons and Dragons, and The Lord of the Rings .
The games enable players
Halting State By Charles Stross Orbit, 335pp, $ 32.99
favourite realm and to become active participants in battles and quests as a new form of interactive story- telling. The most popular online world that Stross has clearly drawn on is World of Warcraft, which has more than 10 million subscribers worldwide.
Halting State begins with a bank robbery. It is no ordinary heist: the thieves are a band of orcs and a dragon that have done what should have been impossible by stealing gold and magical items from a secure virtual bank. As the novel develops, it becomes clear the robbery is only a small window into a larger tale about the intersection of the real and online worlds.
Stross is effective at peeling back the layers of both worlds to reveal a much larger story that would have been overwhelming if exposed too quickly. This book is at its best when using online gaming to develop the story. It is a highly original take on where we may be heading by an author who has an intimate understanding of gaming, and the possibilities and security limitations of the internet.
This book will be most accessible to anyone who knows at least a little about traditional penand- paper and online gaming. Stross does not slow the pace by explaining myriad terms known only to the initiated. The book is littered with geekspeak such as D20s, shards, PvP zones,
noobs and the like, all of which would be familiar to game players but inscrutable to anyone else.
Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is how it embraces the language of gaming, which is more developed than, say, the language of SMS texting. Gamers’ language has grown quickly to be rich and detailed in describing a variety of techniques and the features of computer- generated universes.
However, even knowledge of online gaming will not be sufficient to explain everything to the reader. Stross reveals his roots in Dungeons and Dragons and popular sci- fi culture through references to terms such as vorpal blades, Slaads, the Borg and time- stop spells.
While the reader does not need to know all these terms to enjoy the book, much of the best humour depends on it. It is a book where in- jokes prove to be a great source of fun.
Halting State is about how the line between online worlds and reality breaks down. Stross constructs a plausible scenario that has its roots in what is happening now in areas such as the overlap between the international and online economies. Games such as World of Warcraft have given rise to real- world sweatshops in which people hunch over computer screens grinding out characters and farming gold and items to sell to rich players unwilling to invest the time needed to develop a high- level avatar.
There is a lot of money to be made from this. Top- level World of Warcraft characters are sold for thousands of dollars. Virtual worlds have long been a staple of science fiction.
Stross has shown that online gaming has the same potential, and we can expect this book to be the first of many to explore the interaction between our virtual and real lives.
A clever, funny book, Halting State takes old science fiction ideas in a brilliant new direction. Stross has been hailed as a leading writer of the next generation of science fiction. It is easy to see why. George Williams is a sci- fi and fantasy aficionado who dabbles in constitutional law.
Role call: Image from the World of Warcraft website