World of on­line gamers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­orge Wil­liams

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

to

in­habit

their

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

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