Halting State and Cowboy Angels

by Henry Farrell on October 2, 2007

Charles Stross’s _Halting State_ (“Powells”:http://www.powells.com/partner/29956/s?kw=Charles%20Stross%20Halting%20State, “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0441014984?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0441014984_) should be on the shelves of yer local bookshop as of today; I thoroughly recommend it. It combines the intellectual fireworks of _Accelerando_ with a much less choppy plot and is a lot more fun to read – starting from a virtual bank raid by orcs and a dragon in a newly independent Scotland, and steadily getting more weirder and more interesting from there. It’s the first book I’ve seen that really begins to think through how distributed forms of collective action are likely to collide with more traditional kinds of state-based politics; the bit towards the end where you first figure out what is _really_ going on blew my mind.

Also very good, but a little more traditional is Paul McAuley’s SF thriller _Cowboy Angels_ (no US publisher but the import isn’t “too expensive”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0575079355?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0575079355 ). McAuley uses the many-worlds trope to think through US imperialism with a novel twist – a variety of alternative America’s located in different ‘sheaves’ that have split from each other since the 1920’s, one of which, the ‘Real’ America, has discovered how to build Turing Gates between sheaves, and is using them to introduce democracy by fair means or foul to the rest (our reality is referred to as the ‘Nixon sheaf,’ natch). While some of the spy-novel element is a little formulaic, the different Americas are well thought through and all feel real – they’re shot through with ambiguities rather than simply standing in for this or that political system. For some reason, the book didn’t find a US publisher a couple of years back when it was first on the market – this is a little surprising given its topicality (perhaps it was too politically awkward – my impression is that people who buy this kind of novel in the US tend (a) to be right of center and (b) not to enjoy having their priors challenged).