Saturday, 12 January 2008
'Halting State' - Charles Stross (Orbit Books)
I've really enjoyed reading Charles Stross' books but have found that the 'technical bits' tend to run away from me and leave me all confused. What better way then to review Stross' latest work than to give it to someone who has forgotten more technical stuff than I will ever know...
My friend Ben is that person and here's what he thought...
Charles Stross' forthcoming book, Halting State, is a surprising mix
of thriller and computer security textbook.
Most authors who attempt to include technology in their books fail to
make it convincing, and technology professionals cringe when reading
these attempts. Stross is one of those very rare authors who has in-
depth knowledge about computers and those who work with them, and
writes about it accurately yet accessibly. You don't have to be a
computer expert to read this book, but if you are you'll appreciate
his accurate portrayal of the technology and the culture. If you're
not, you'll just have to sit back and enjoy a great read.
The plot has the standard unexpected twists and turns, with a
surprise every chapter or two and the odd bit of romance thrown in
for good measure. It's told from the point of view of about six key
players, which feels gimmicky at first but turns out to be an
effective way of slowly revealing what's actually going on.
Now you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but on the
cover of this particular book among the quotes from more cultural
figures, is a sentence of glowing praise from Bruce Schneier. Google
him. He literally wrote the book on cryptography and computer
security, both the technology and the social implications.
Now any work of fiction with that on the cover is certainly going to
be interesting, and Halting State didn't disappoint. In previous
books, Stross took the idea that magic was simply advanced
mathematics, and ran with it. In this one, he just takes current
technology, trends, and political policy, and winds things on a
decade or so, past Scottish Independence, into a world where everyone
is on the net all the time through an array of personal electronic
gadgets. The mobile phone is now a virtual reality gizmo which
overlays the sum of human knowledge onto your vision through your
glasses, and no-one leaves the house without strapping a vast
quantity of battery powered gadgets to their clothing.
In many ways, it's an appealing vision of the future. The technology
sounds great, and certainly conservatively achieveable in a decade or
two. But there's a downside to everything, and the book examines the
dangers of a world where everything is on the internet and society
can't function without it. It's a good read for anyone interesting in
where things will probably go, and how that could turn out. And you
don't even have to be technically minded to understand and enjoy it.
Nine and quite a lot out of ten.