Halting State

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Charles Stross, Orbit, £7.99

In the mid 1980s there was a rash of science fiction films and books set inside computer games and virtual reality. More recently this setting has gone out of fashion. It's strange because what was then just speculation and imagined technology is now closer and more vivid and its implications are much broader.

Charles Stross has explored some of the issues thrown up by recent, and potential, advances in computer technology in his near future thriller set in a newly independent Scotland.

Halting State is told, to limited effect, in the second person through three main characters.

It begins when Sergeant Sue Smith is called to investigate a bank robbery carried out by orcs and dragons. This seems like a total waste of time as the robbery has happened inside a massively multi-player online role-playing game.

However it turns out what has been stolen is a huge database table worth millions, not least to the share price of the online gaming company it belonged to. All kinds of real life repercussions then follow as the plot thickens through murder, threats, kidnapping, international spying, high finance and computer security.

Stross uses his intricate knowledge of computer theory and of the workings of financial markets to create an exiting and fast paced thriller. This follows real life examples of online theft where in-game assets are sold for real cash. Such as the man in South London who turned up at a police station to report that the magic sword he had bought on eBay for use in an online game was not magic at all.

The novel has some excellent extrapolations from current technology and is scattered with neat, witty observations - for example, combining virtual reality headsets and iPod video glasses to create a mixture of the real view with computer generated images being fed into them from a mobile phone. This means geeky students can walk around seeing wizards and elves in the place of fellow bus passengers, or police can enhance their view of a building by overlaying plans to see what's in the next room, use infra-red night vision, zoom in and out, call up crime reports and verify suspects' IDs instantly.

However this is not a future dystopia and Scottish policing is described as, "Like the Keystone Kops on crack, only with better special effects," which sounds familiar enough.

Stross describes the world of Halting State as "grounded in today; many trends already visible in our current civilisation are present and amplified... but it's still a future with room for ordinary people to live". The only difference is that these ordinary people cannot remember a time before "YouTube, MySpace and transparency".

There is a fair amount of jargon and references to specific technology but this is a feature of the genre. Stross's intention here is to write science fiction that gets away from escapist fantasy and space adventures. But I don't think that the use of industry specific terms is too alienating and the plot is exciting, full of twists and absolutely gripping.