State of chassis

by Henry on January 27, 2009

Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Halting State for my money, is Charlie Stross’s best science fiction novel. Not his most fun novel – that award collectively goes to the slightly-borked-alternative-reality Merchant Princes series that Paul talks about. Nor his most wildly inventive novel (which is surely Accelerando). But it’s the novel where fun and speculation come together most successfully. It works both as an entertaining read and as a fascinating discussion of an encroaching low-level singularity. It’s one of the best pieces of sociological-political extrapolation that I’ve ever read.

But the book is sneaky – the sociological speculation tiptoes up to you very, very quietly before it pounces. It begins like a genre novel, albeit not a genre science-fiction novel. Instead, it steals its opening chops from Christopher Brookmyre, a writer of satirical thrillers who doesn’t get nearly as much attention as he deserves on this side of the Atlantic (US readers should imagine a Scottish Carl Hiaasen with a keen interest in weapons and consumer technology). Brookmyre’s books regularly make the bestseller list in the UK – he has succeeded (as most SF writers haven’t) in marketing his books to the MMORPG generation (one of his thrillers is built around references to the classic FPS game Quake). The set-up at the beginning of the novel – where a frantic executive tries to explain to an Edinburgh cop how a team of orcs with a dragon have carried off an online bank-heist – is classic Brookmyre (so much so that I suspect it is a deliberate homage). But Stross is much more ambitious than Brookmyre. Rather than throwing political jab-punches at authority, Stross is interested in figuring out what happens to society when political authority evanesces away.

As noted, the novel is sneaky. Much of its argument (if I’m right) is oblique. It begins with what seems to be a targeted recruiting email dense with personal details about its intended target, but which is most likely automatically generated spam. But as the novel continues, you find out that the person to whom the spam is addressed is himself non-existent. Perhaps he’s a fake identity who was created by the security services for one of the book’s main characters to slot into. Or perhaps he’s simply based on that character. Or he’s a cutout for British intelligence. Or perhaps something else entirely. As with many aspects of the novel’s underlying plot, this is left a little ambiguous. The novel concludes with another email which appears to be standard Nigerian 419 spam – an offer to transfer large amounts of money from an account in a Lagos bank to the account of the major villain of the book. Despite appearances, the email is very plausibly legitimate.

These emails present, in miniature, one of the major themes of the book. In a world of open communications, there is no good way to distinguish fake identities from real ones, or false flag messages from legitimate communications. This hopelessly entangles both the good and the nasty characters of Halting State in a web of miscommunications.

Hence the plot is a morass of confusions about people’s real identities and motivations. The characters themselves speculate about the big picture, sometimes plausibly, sometimes not so, but nobody sees it entire. Halting State emphasizes that everything is subjective by presenting the story in the second person singular – “You backtrack, trying to work out what confused her” and so on – like a very complicated old-style text based computer adventure (maybe one of the old Infocom or Level 9 games). But unlike one of those old games, there isn’t any underlying plot that has been created by the game’s author, where you go through the locations, solve the puzzles and win the prizes. Instead, the game is generated by the characters themselves, none of whom fully understand what the others are doing.

Thus, for example, the main plotline – World of Warcraft meets The Producers. Start with a company – Hayek Associates,1which purportedly provides financial back-end services to the online gaming industry, but which in fact has various shady links with British intelligence. Add a psychopathic CEO who doesn’t realise that his company is a front, and is trying (with the help of his sidekick) to drive his company bankrupt so he can profit from exotic futures contracts that he has placed on its demise. Then have the CEO selling the company’s copies of the national backbone’s one time pads via an anonymized blacknet to a crowd whom he probably thinks are Russian mafiya, but in fact are Chinese government hackers. Add a fictitious employee (‘whose’ apartment hosts a node for the blacknet), a gaming clan of dedicated griefers working with the Chinese state in some vaguely defined cooperative relationship, a low level member of aforementioned gaming clan who decides to cop some money on the side by organizing an online bank raid (with Orcs – hence the opening scene), a confused effort by the boss’s sidekick-in-crime (who doesn’t fully understand what is going on) to inform the police, an even more confused attempt by some shadowy EU intelligence body to mount a raid on the company, and the merry-go-round is in full swing.

But this isn’t simply Feydeau without the sex. There’s a quite serious and interesting underlying point here. What makes the generalized confusion possible are the unexpected consequences of a set of technologies and social practices. Communications built on open, trusting protocols such as TCP/IP. The confluence of real life and online activities. People’s willingness to do pretty well anything as long as they think it’s a ‘game.’ Distributed computing and public key cryptography. Services that provide electronic updates from imaginary family members, for people who would otherwise be hopelessly lonely. Cars run by expert systems embedded in the communications net. All of these things enable what Larry Lessig might describe as ‘architectures of control.’ But the architectures don’t really control people any more in the ways that they used to. Instead, they create a toxic mixture of ubiquitous surveillance and official cluelessness about how to use the information and opportunities it creates to deal with new security threats.

More generally, (and herein, I think, lies the pun in the book’s title), it is practically impossible for traditional authority-based politics to cope with a world of this kind. The traditional state, if it is to work at all, needs an underlying system of responsibility and accountability, with clear lines of command. There may be areas in which these rules are deliberately relaxed of course, most obviously intelligence and counter-intelligence. Here, as multitudes of spy novelists from John Le Carre to Alan Furst tell us, ambiguous motivations, uncertain information and deliberate deception create a miniature world which is rife with confusion. But even this shadowy world has its own informal rules and mutual understandings about what can and can not be done. The world that Stross portrays is one where (a) the confusion of intelligence operations has become ubiquitous and (b) the spymasters have completely lost their grip without realizing it. States simply aren’t in control any more, to the extent that they ever were.

This comes out most clearly in state authorities’ interactions with the most characteristic phenomenon of Stross’s world – massive, decentralized networks of game players. Both Chinese and British intelligence use gamers as agents – the Chinese use a clan of rabid online gamers while the Brits use a crowd of people who think that they are playing an elaborate real life role playing game but in fact are auditioning for a starring role in the new world of international espionage., they don’t realize that the networks are beyond their control. The traditional state has reached an endpoint in which the world simply Does Not Compute. As the viewpoint character whose worldview is probably closest to Stross’s own describes it:

The spooks in Guoanbu probably are professional, they wouldn’t mess with the European SCADA infrastructure short of an outright shooting war … but are they likely to realize that they’ve almost certainly been Pwn3d by their own pet griefer clan, and all their electronic armoured divisions are in the hands of a dozen Asperger’s cases with attention-deficit disorder and a quantum magic wand? It’s not a risk you can take. And it’s not a risk you can explain to Barry Michaels, because you know his type and after seventy years of data processing they still think that coders can be hired and fired; that the engineers who ripped out the muscles and nerves of the modern world and replaced it with something entirely alien under the skin are still little artisans who will put
their tools down and go home if you tell them to leave the job half-done.

Massively distributed networks of information exchange (with anonymity, pseudonymity etc built in) empower networks to do all sorts of things that previously took top-down hierarchical organization. This can sometimes be convenient for states – it is hard to hold a state accountable for the behavior of agents in networks who are sort-of affiliated with them (this is a real problem – security types here in Washington DC are perpetually muttering about Chinese hackers trying to infiltrate USG systems – but no-one knows for certain whether these hackers are state-sponsored agents or just kids out for an electronic joyride at the expense of Uncle Sam). But it has deep, underlying, fundamental problems for state agency, because (contra Michaels and his Chinese counterparts, these networks can’t just be turned on and off as the state likes. They’re autonomous, have their own internal logic, and are inherently unpredictable. A world dominated by diffuse shifting social networks is a world that states aren’t going to be able to control any more.Thus, in Halting State, open technologies and the networks they permit to form are creating a kind of low-level Singularity. States think that they are able to control these networks – but they are instead helping to build forms of social organization that challenge their underlying logic of organization.

Stross’s vision of the near future isn’t as stylized as, say, William Gibson’s or Neal Stephenson’s. Nor does it involve the mixture of worries and individualist wish-fulfilment that, say, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End does. Instead, he presents a world which is (if it’s possible) even more muddy and complicated than the one we inhabit today. I have no doubt whatsoever that this book should have won the Hugo a couple of months ago (not that I begrudge Michael Chabon, but TYPU wasn’t his best book by a fair stretch). It sketches out a new way of thinking about SF that I suspect will be far more influential in the future than self-conscious movements like Ryman’s Mundanes. Rather than engaging with the futures of the past (as lots of SF today does, it tries to set out the futures of the present, engaging with a bristlingly complex set of social developments and reaching out to a new set of readers who are embedded in SFnal media products but rarely read SF (an entirely separate essay could be written on the new ways that HS tries to engage with readers). I think that this is the first genuinely successful SFnal take on the social changes that we’re facing into – not, of course, because it is going to be right – but because it takes some of the core dilemmas of an IT based society, plays with them and extrapolates them in ways that challenge our basic understanding of politics in a networked society. About two thirds of the way through reading this book, my mind was completely blown, in a good way. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

1I suspect that the name is a sly dig at Hayek rather than a tribute to him- the decentralized actions and knowledge of multiple agents produces chaos rather than catallaxy.



John Quiggin 01.27.09 at 8:00 pm

Time for a Top 5 list ? My Stross Top 5, in order

1. Accelerando
2. Halting State
3. Merchant Princes
4. Glasshouse
5. The Jennifer Morgue


Henry Farrell 01.27.09 at 8:01 pm

For me:

1. Halting State
2. The Merchant Princes
3. The Atrocity Exhibition.
4. Accelerando.
5. The Jennifer Morgue (aka The Fry Who Loved Me)


Ewan 01.27.09 at 8:52 pm

[Digression before getting to point: Halting State got me as close as I have ever been to writing a fanboy note; at one point Stross used ‘uncanny valley’ as an adjectival modifier for a slightly creepy avatar. Now, I know why *I* recognise the phrase – I’m a neuroscientist and have a colleague working on fMRI mapping of responses to near-human-appearance dolls – but it’s mildly obscure, and to have a reference to 1970s robotic-societal research dropped in so correctly and offhandedly makes me truly wonder how much else of similar depth I’m missing in the writing. OK, back to topic.]

The issue of trust frameworks and groups is in the zeitgeist: see e.g. Little Brother or Ringo’s The Last Centurion (not in the same class of writing, and both cruder and [much!] more right-wing, but contains nuggets). One of the things that I liked about the treatment in HS was the prompt to consider how we may move from nationalism in self-identification towards groups formed on the basis of online interactions (and that leads to Gibson-like musing on how the role of nations may change and diminish, and so on). I wonder whether identity will go through the stages that photography has, recently: a brief moment where it was possible to have proof of ID followed by a move into everything other than direct personal experience being fungible?

I really enjoyed the confusion – both ours and the characters’ – as to the role of real-world enforcement in the online realm. I’m not actually convinced that the crime with which the book beings is really plausible; but maybe I simply need to go spend a few thousand hours in WoW :). Regardless: glorious and thought-provoking read.


Henry 01.27.09 at 9:20 pm

Hi Ewan – I am not sure that ‘uncanny valley’ is really obscure – it has enjoyed a recent vogue (and indeed got in-depth discussion on ’30 Rock’ last season, which is surely some sort of sign of quirky-but-still-sort-of-mainstream-acceptance). Maybe your mileage varies …


Russell L. Carter 01.27.09 at 9:30 pm

“A world dominated by diffuse shifting social networks is a world that states aren’t going to be able to control any more.”

The dominating bit is a mighty big presumption. I’m sitting here watching my mailbox fill up with inane Obamoid fanboy nonsense about how little old me can send my ideas directly to The President. As I ruminate on how dumb this is, coming from the very best manipulator of social networks so far, I confess I don’t see a path to HS style social constructions.

I finished HS about noon my time today and an hour later all this stuff plopped into my rss reader. Synchronicity at least, if not singularity.


Ray 01.27.09 at 9:33 pm

I think the release of “The Polar Express” pushed the term ‘uncanny valley’ into the mainstream. Seriously, have you ever seen that movie?


Ewan 01.28.09 at 3:09 am

Ray – yes, indeed, and it’s a classic example; just didn’t know that the discussion had gone so mainstream. As Henry points out, I am likely simply unimmersed in pop culture :-).

A couple of links to the research I mentioned:


shah8 01.28.09 at 6:14 am

It is waaaaay too late for me to make a coherent statement, but I do want to push out the thought that we are seeing this now, not quite so much in terms of the internet, but in media.

Media is supposed to have an open structure, but TPTB here has as much an interest in controlling what the masses see as those of Soviet Russia. However, to disguise that control, they use monopsony control instead of monopoly control so they can have market forces explanations for censoring activities. However, this control is not at all firm, but TPTB *think* that all of the factions (Big TV, Big Radio, Big Publishers, so forth and on…) both are on the same page and have control. In actuality, they are confused from having to juggle technology, rationales, industry needs, misanthropic talent, etc, etc.

One of the reasons why I liked Halting State as much as I did, is that I think it is utterly prophetic about the nature of our economic problems. I cite the Media now, because Fringe’s obvious homages to convention normativity was really bugging me tonight (making me worried about paranoia). The Market, on the other hand, well, guess what? It played out damn near exactly like the book. The reasons why it happened, the activities, etc, etc. Except we don’t know how it ends, only that this time, it’s not some human who decides how calm returns to the global economy.


Martin Wisse 01.28.09 at 7:43 am

I agree with Henry; Halting State so far is the best Stross novel I’ve read. As Henry said, it’s a novel that attempts to engage the present and create a future out of it, without looking at traditional sf context. Interestingly enough, there have been a couple of other novels that I read at the same time as this one that sort of have a consensus future; Ken MacLeod’s Execution Channel shares some of its assumptions, as does McDonald’s Brasyl or Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s End of the World Blues.

As to Russell’;s (#5) objections I don’t think Charlie himself is making the argument quite as Henry puts here: it’s quite clear in the book that while things do get out of hand and the social networks are unpredictable, governments and the deep state for the most part are able to control them. There is nothing new about intelligence agencies using unpredictable but deniable third parties after all.

My top five of Stross stories would be:

1) Halting State
2) Saturn’s Children, cover and all
3) “Lobsters”
4) Atrocity Archives/Jennifer Morgue
5) “A Colder War”


luis 01.28.09 at 12:47 pm

Serious question: Am I the only person here who loves Singularity Sky? And/or who thought that Accelerando was better when it was just Lobsters?

(Can’t really put together a fair list myself yet as I haven’t read Saturn’s Children or Halting State yet. And I found Merchant Princes unreadable at the end of the third book, but maybe I’ll pick the rest of them up and give them a second try.)


rea 01.28.09 at 2:24 pm

Am I the only person here who loves Singularity Sky?

Me! I do too! And Iron Sunrise has been hardly mentioned at all . . .


Steve 01.28.09 at 2:37 pm

I really like Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, possibly IS more. I’d have a hard time picking between IS and Halting State. I’ve re-read SS and IS more than any of the others.

Merchant Princes is good entertainment–plane flights, etc., but not his best.


Martin Wisse 01.28.09 at 3:08 pm

Sure, I love those two books as well, especially Iron Sunrise with its scary space nazis, but they’re more uneven than Charlie’s later work.

Accelerando in comparison to “Lobsters” does drag a bit at the end, the relentless pace can’t quite be sustained, but it’s still an impressive book.


Jack William Bell 01.28.09 at 5:40 pm

RE: Halting State as Charlie’s best work…

I’m of the opinion that HS is Charlie showing off. I mean this in a good way, of course. Let me explain.

Because HS isn’t as accessible (or even as readable) as some of his other work, it is likely to only make the favorites list of only those of us who appreciate the art and audacity of what Charlie has done. (Or those few who missed the writing strength, but found some part of it resonated especially well with them.) What do I mean by art and audacity?

Let me start with Audacity: Charlie set HS in what is universally recognized as the most difficult time period to write Science Fiction about; the near future of what is clearly our own world. Few have pulled it off with good results. (Can we say Gibson, Brunner? There are others.) Moreover the near future of HS is ‘right around the corner’. Speaking as someone who works in the mobile device industry I can tell you that all of the technology in HS could be delivered in a couple of years, and might well be! (Note: Required network infrastructure won’t be well deployed.)

Now, Art: The reason Charlie’s use of second person in HS stands out so much is that almost no one does it. It is difficult to read for anyone used to first or third person and probably equally difficult to write. Moreover it isn’t well suited for character driven narrative because you are placing the reader, with her or his own opinions and life choices, into the mindset of the narrative character. This potentially leads to mental-modeling confusion and must be handled carefully.

So, in HS, Charlie simultaneously made two extremely difficult choices. And then he made them work in a story which not only was a ripping good tale, it also revealed something important about us and the future we may soon reside in.

Yeah, Charlie was showing off. Like a master tightrope walker doing two hard tricks at once, he was showing off to the other tightrope walkers (and wannabe tightrope walkers) in the audience. “See! It can be done!”


NickS 01.28.09 at 10:35 pm

I haven’t read Halting State, though based on this description I will as soon as I can.

I wanted to mention, however, that this description:

There’s a quite serious and interesting underlying point here. What makes the generalized confusion possible are the unexpected consequences of a set of technologies and social practices. Communications built on open, trusting protocols such as TCP/IP. The confluence of real life and online activities. People’s willingness to do pretty well anything as long as they think it’s a ‘game.’

Reminded me of most of Pat Cadigan books in one way or another (Tea From an Empty Cup and Dervish is Digital most explicitly, but her earlier novels as well).

That isn’t particularly relevant, except that she’s my favorite of the cyberpunks, and seems worth mentioning in this conversation.


Xavier 01.29.09 at 2:17 am

I found Accelerando totally exhilarating, though I really enjoyed Halting State as well. (And I discovered Stross through a post here on CT – thanks CT!). The sheer inventiveness of it was amazing.

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