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).



Dan Miller 10.02.07 at 5:06 pm

It strikes me as esp. odd that it was not published in the U.S., but was published elsewhere. All else being equal, I would have expected that the market for alternate histories of the U.S. was not very large outside the States. Am I mistaken? My knowledge of SF publishing outside the U.S. is not what it should be (thank you, Internet, for giving me cause to write sentences like that last).


Flippanter 10.02.07 at 5:35 pm

I feel guilty about not liking Charles Stross’ books as much as I think I should, based on the reactions of others.


Dan Goodman 10.02.07 at 6:52 pm

So far as I can tell, American readers of alternate history are all over the political map. Both readers and writers range from fairly far left to fairly far right.


Henry 10.02.07 at 7:48 pm

dan – I was thinking of tech thrillers rather than alternate history (but was admittedly rather vague in my phrasing).


John Quiggin 10.02.07 at 10:17 pm

By coincidence, I just picked up Halting State here in Australia, which is in the UK imperial zone for such things (matching our de jure but not de facto status). I endorse Henry’s recommendation, though it will be hard for Stross to match Accelerando, I think.


Neil 10.03.07 at 2:21 am

I tried to read Iron Sunrise . I hated it. It struck me as pure pulp. Should I persist with Stross?


Henry 10.03.07 at 3:17 am

neil – yep – it’s not his best. If you want to try-before-you-buy, read “A Colder War”:http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/colderwar.htm to experience some vintage Stross.


chris y 10.03.07 at 7:07 am

All else being equal, I would have expected that the market for alternate histories of the U.S. was not very large outside the States.

We can dream, can’t we?


Nick Caldwell 10.03.07 at 10:13 am

Stross’s “Atrocity Archives” – a mixture of Len Deighton, Dilbert, and Lovecraft, is well worth the time, even for those disappointed by Iron Sunrise. Though I must register astonishment that “pure pulp” is anything other than a sterling recommendation.


ajay 10.03.07 at 2:16 pm

Agree with 9. The Eschaton books – “Singularity Sky” and “Iron Sunrise” – aren’t great, although fans of China Mieville would probably take to them. The Laundry books – “The Atrocity Archive”, “The Concrete Jungle” and “The Jennifer Morgue” – are much better. “Accelerando” would have been a good collection of short stories – as a novel it makes your head hurt.


Bill Gardner 10.03.07 at 2:25 pm

I am in the middle of Halting State, and greatly enjoying it. I also recommend Vinge’s Rainbows End, which also concerns how “distributed forms of collective action are likely to collide with more traditional kinds of state-based politics”.

BTW, I agree with the criticism of Iron Sunrise, but I would like to find out what happens to the Eschaton.

And I would really like to know how Stross writes so much.


Paul 10.03.07 at 2:44 pm

I follow his blog.

Stross’ success seems to be that he simply just up and does it. Every day.

And no one has given any love to his “Merchant Princes” novels, which are science fiction with alternate histories and a strong grounding in, of all things, economics.

That is what introduced me to Stross, and I still need to catch up on his full oeuvre.


Phil Armstrong 10.03.07 at 3:42 pm

ajay@10: Accelerando was a collection of short stories, originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, just as Asimov’s original Foundation novel was published in “Astounding Magazine” as a series of shorts.

But maybe you already knew that…


Barry 10.03.07 at 5:18 pm

“neil – yep – it’s not his best. If you want to try-before-you-buy, read A Colder War to experience some vintage Stross.”

Posted by Henry

A Colder War is great; the best of his horror/SF/fantasy mixture to date.


Bruce 10.03.07 at 5:46 pm

You know, I liked “A Colder War” more than the “Laundry” books: the Lovecraftian Horror has rather more of a punch, with the Laundry books striking me as more comic-bookish and often too far from Lovecraftian canon in ways that sort of suck the tension out of it for me – I mean, the UK’s close circuit television spy camera setup as an Old One bug-zapper using “petrification-vision” or whatever it was?

Still pretty good, though…


Henry 10.03.07 at 5:54 pm

I think I _have_ given some love to the Merchant Princes books in a previous post – and exactly b/c of their interest in economics and development. They’re the best thing of their kind since _A Connecticut Yankee_ – smart, interesting, and highly entertaining.


Paul 10.03.07 at 7:57 pm

As for the others, Accelerando is very impressive, but I couldn’t entirely warm to it – I found that I was reading it more for the infodumps than the plot development. I prefer his “Merchant Princes” series which has less bells and whistles, but does a better job in my opinion of combining plotline with sociological speculation.

So you did, Henry, when I searched for it. So I retract my previous comment about “no love”. I am looking forward to the new one coming out at the end of this month. I don’t buy too many novels in HC (too expensive). The Merchant Princes are among those few that I do.


Demosthenes 10.03.07 at 8:30 pm

Are you implying, ajay, that there are poor unfortunate souls who aren’t fans of China Mieville’s work?

Poor, poor devils.

(I would say the same of those who are so hostile to well-executed space opera to discount the Iron Sunrise/Singularity Sky books, but I’m a polite fellow. Especially to my host.)


Carlos 10.03.07 at 9:53 pm

Hi Henry,

Actually — and as I know Dan Goodman knows — there’s a rather tight cluster of jingo authors and wannabes within the alternate history genre who fit your description rather well. Most are Republican-Glibertarian, but there’s a Lieberman Democrat and a bellicose Trot in there too. They’ve made an active effort to drive away alternate history readers who disagree with them ideologically. (Although one has pandered to the Wicca and SCA sets in order to make up the difference.) If you follow Charlie’s blog, they’re some of the more barking mad commenters.

Wish I could agree with you more about Charlie’s stuff. I like Charlie, and he’s a fun guy online, but if this were the 1980s, he’d be somewhere between Barrington Bayley and Crawford Kilian.


ajay 10.04.07 at 10:07 am

13: I did actually know that – should have made it clear in my first comment. Didn’t know it about the Foundation series, though. I think Accelerando suffers from having the (apparently imposed) continuity of the same characters throughout; it would be much better as a set of unconnected short stories.

18: I am so, so not rising to that one.


Valuethinker 10.04.07 at 5:43 pm

The alternate history crowd tends to be right to very right wing. Steve Stirling anyone? Or ‘Watch on the Rhine’? If you encounter them on the net, you certainly find that.

I would guess there is a nexus of ‘right wing’ publishers and readers around David Drake (although I like his classical allusions, almost ripoffs to forgive him and I devour most of what he writes), Steve Stirling, Janet Morris, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven etc. (Janet Morris was an adviser to Newt Gingrich).

I guess Harry Turtledove is more of a Truman-style Democrat? Someone told me Eric Flint (Belisarius novels, also 1631/1632) is a real labour-leftist, but I don’t know.

The genre has some sublime books: my lasting interest in Byzantium comes from L. Sprague de Camp’s ‘Lest Darkness Fall’. Drake and Flint have picked up Belisarius again, but no one can match de Camp for humour and a deft touch (the same is true of his fantasy novels).

And there is ‘The Man in the High Castle’ by PK Dick, and ‘The Iron Dream’ by Norman Spinrad. I think Algys Budrys did one too– about a US under German and Japanese occupation?

Stross. I liked Singularity Sky not so much, and Iron Sunrise very much, in the sense it was an almost EE Doc Smith ‘I cannot put this down’ read. He even makes truly creepy space Nazis. (you know it’s space opera, when you have space Nazis). He’s a good society-builder too.

Stylistically he needs work. Too much explication. Characters not all believable or even rounded. I’ll get to Accelerando. His ability to seque from humour to horror and back again is quite special.

I think the concept behind Atrocity Archives/ Jennifer Morgue (ironic spy, trapped in bureaucracy, fighting Cthulu?) is so brilliant that I’ll stick with it, through and thin.

Stross I think may get better. He has had an incredible burst of productivity (something like 7 books in 4 years?) and his style needs polishing. Almost too many ideas, and too little development of the implications.

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