Monday, 23 December 2013

Article | When the Present Catches Up

...Inspired by reading a near-future SF novel where the near is becoming progressively "nearer". I can easily imagine that soon, the technology of "Halting State" won't be so far from our own. But what happens when the present does catch up with the imagined future, with the date of that future... or simply with a date at which that future itself looks  outdated?

It's clear that some novels are still successful despite (and some even partly -because- of) this, whereas others prove easily dated. 1984 is long gone, 2001 saw very few space odysseys (to say nothing of 2010), but neither Orwell nor Clarke will fall off our reading lists any time soon! Part of this, I think, is generality, and in this I think softer SF tends to persist better. It latches more onto the fantasy end of the market: views of technology might be easily outdated, but we still want to explore views of humanity - or even just views of a particularly interesting character. The Handmaid's Tale, for instance (though I don't recall whether its epilogue ever set an exact year), I can imagine being read for a long time to come. Regardless of if we use credit cards (which the text mentions), or - I don't know - chips embedded in our fingers (wait, that's horrible, but still), her dystopian vision will still be relevant. While the worldbuilding is always interesting, if a tale doesn't stand as something other than exposition, there isn't much to it - I can imagine a lot of the near future crime SF sticking around.

What about the view of technology itself? Well, it seems to help to defy the current aesthetic: if a novel is just one of hundreds of 70s SF novels all espousing the same vision of the future, it'll date quickly, especially when we reach the set date of said future, and it's completely wrong (meanwhile, there's always room for a quirkily different vision, even if wrong!). As always, it's the different ideas which stand out - whether socially or scientifically. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series will be around for a while: plenty have thought up similarly space-operatic futures, but the societies she places in these futures are endlessly inventive. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (which popularised the word 'avatar') easily stands out from its cyberpunk lookalikes with the franchised USA setting (plus a hefty dose of amazingness. Protagonist as pizza deliverer for the Mob, anyone?).

Thirdly, a lot of the novels which stick around are simply lucky. Nobody can avoid being influenced by their time, and their contemporaries. Just look at the parade of fiction which used nuclear physics as a general do-anything tool, just because it was new! But exactly which of these similar novels or stories ends up defining that time period in the present day is often due to luck, or popularity (I guess there's also an element of which best fits current values as well).

...don't worry, I don't have any particular point in bringing this up - I just think it's interesting to think about which SF novels have stuck around, even when their technological predictions are hopelessly outdated. Any you particularly think will stand the test of time?

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Review | Halting State - Charles Stross

I've always enjoyed Charles Stross' novels - though admittedly, mainly those involving Bob Howard facing more Lovecraftian spywork/the threat of paperclip audits - so I thought it was past time to pick up the first of this series. Halting State is a near-future SF novel, set in a Scotland post secession from the UK, and one in which a puzzling digital crime has been committed. Hayek Associates, economists for online games, have been robbed - ingame, and impossibly, suggesting that somebody has leaked cryptographic keys. Now the local police are involved, and Sergeant Sue Smith has to investigate a virtual robbery. Meanwhile, the insurers are panicking, and so Elaine Barnaby is sent in to gather evidence - paying Jack Reed, an ex game developer, an obscene sum as consultant. In other words, our three protagonists! But nothing's quite that simple: the robbery seems only the start of a larger crime, Jack's relatives are being threatened, and a Hayek programmer has apparently disappeared...

The most unusual thing about Halting State is the way it's told: second person, from three perspectives. I did eventually adjust, but it took longer than I thought it would - it's a little hard to simply drop in and out of. It's also a slow start from a technobabble perspective - as expected from a novel about a technical crime, and one in which the protagonists are experts in their fields, it's a little heavy (overly heavy?) on the jargon to start with, sometimes needlessly. That said, past the first third, the pace accelerated rapidly and I found myself quickly absorbed.

The technothriller aspects of the novel - particularly later - are wonderful, and the way in which the initial crime fits into the larger picture is perfect: as always, Stross' worldbuilding (even in the near future) is both inventive and compelling. But what about characterisation? Despite enjoying Halting State, that's where my second gripe comes in: while both Elaine and Jack's plotlines had clear structures, Sue Smith's perspectives seemed simply there to keep an eye on the police side of things, and tie the others together. In other words, her role seemed far smaller than expected, and I was occasionally left wondering why such a large chunk of the novel was devoted to her viewpoints - while I liked her as a character, it would be nice to have seen her have a more active effect on the plot. That said, all three characters worked well in the setting, and I found Elaine particularly engaging: a businesswomen essentially hung out to dry on a troublesome case by her partners, she's nonetheless determined to make sense of the situation, and definitely manages to take charge. There's also a nice revelation with Jack's character that I didn't see coming, and succeeds - as all good twists should - in really turning things around.

The pacing, meanwhile - post the first third - is well tuned: we're left just enough time to accustom ourselves to a new mystery before the whole issue deepens. And it's just just investigation, don't worry - there's some... inventive (no spoilers, I promise!) action as well. I especially liked how parts of it are set up from the beginning in the worldbuilding: it's not gratuitous, it fits, and more, it clicks (or at least gives you the "I should have seen that coming, but I really couldn't!" feeling, which is the best feeling).

Overall though, Halting State is well worth reading. If you want a fun, well-developed mystery - with some unusual and interesting protagonists thrown in - I'd advise checking it out, with the caveats that it has a slow start, an odd point of view structure, and Sue's plotline meanders a little. While I'd never recommend it over the Laundry series (so far my favourite of Stross' - though I'm looking forward to the Mo book), it'll definitely pass the time enjoyably.