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Four Winds Converge

Halting State  (Halting State, volume 1)

By Charles Stross 

31 Dec, 2018

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The opening paragraph informs you that the book featured in today’s review is Halting State. This novel was written by Charles Stross and was published in 2007. You muse on how long ago that was. 

The book opens with protagonist one, Sergeant Sue Smith. She is summoned to Hayek Associates, who are victims of a robbery that proves much less straightforward than expected. 

Hayek Associates runs an online game called Avalon Four. Some cunning person staged a raid on the A4 central bank, absconding with its contents. This is only possible if the bampots1 had somehow come into possession of a private cryptographic token. The robbery itself is vexing, but the fact that it was possible is alarming. 

The text then draws your attention to Jack Reed, protagonist two, a programmer recently decanted onto the open market. Jack has just the right combination of skills and unemployed status to be of potential interest to Dietrich-Brunner Associates, who are concerned with the Hayek raid from an insurance angle. Determined to acquire Jack’s services, they accede to his demand for an exorbitant wage. 

You note but do not comment on how the review skips over Elaine, the third protagonist. Presumably her elision is due to constrained review space and not to misogyny on the part of the reviewer. 

You learn that there seem to be two possibilities. One, less concerning, is that there’s a leak/leaker in Hayek Associates. The other, potentially catastrophic, is that someone has figured out how to break security measures believed to be unhackable, measures on which state security and most commerce depend. 

The review mentions that one of Hayek’s programmers has pulled a vanishing act; there are also indications that the Chinese secret police may be involved. You note that the familiar players of the Cold War may be shuffling off-stage, to be replaced by new bad actors. The Republic of Scotland and the EU of which it is a part may have been outplayed. 


You ponder why the reviewer would have picked this book in particular for the final review of 2018. You are told that the reviewer was encouraged to consider it by a hundred-dollar bribe. You also learn that the novel is of interest because it is set in our present as imagined ten years ago, at a time when people foolishly believed that George W. Bush was worst president that the Republican Party would ever foist upon the US. You shake your head at the naïveté of those long-ago folks. 

You learn from this review that the US figures in this book as an unfortunate example of bad technological choices, which were, alas, reasonable at the time. The EU, India, and China, who did not make the same bad decisions, are now contending for world domination. If you are an American, you think how wonderful it would be if the US were a force for world stability, prosperity, and peace, rather than … what it is now. 

You note in passing that in Stross’ alternate reality, Scotland is an independent republic. This seems reasonable to you, but you are then gobsmacked to learn that England is still a willing member of the EU and Russia is a cooperative member of the international order. You are also gobsmacked by the author’s cheery prediction of a 2019 in which famine, trade collapse, and widespread medical shortages were not barrelling down on England. You add Stross’ world to the great list of fictional Englands that are better off than the real one, along with the Englands of House of Cards and Threads.

You also note that the author has said nothing specific about the author’s writing style, even though you have a distinct memory that there was something notable about this Stross novel in particular. Perhaps the reviewer has inserted some sort of subtle hint as to this Strossian quirk. Or perhaps they meant to do so and then forgot. 

You take under consideration the reviewer’s opinion that Halting State is one part international thriller to one part forensic caper novel. A novel in which the stakes are as vast as the fate of the EU or as personal as life and death (as a very tangible corpse proves). You decide to purchase the book, having wisely decided ages ago to take the reviewer’s advice. 

This review helpfully informs you that Halting State is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: A footnote provides the detail that this is Glaswegian slang for hooligans and criminals.