Sunday, April 25, 2010


When it comes to art, certain great works just can't seem to be repeated.  "The Princess Bride" is one of my favorite movies, and the favorite of many people, but nobody seems able to make another movie quite like it.  Tolkien is endlessly imitated, but nobody has tried to make another Ulysses.  After I discovered Massive Attack, I happily explored the works of Portishead; after I discovered Sigur Ros, I tried in vain to find other bands which could evoke that same mental place within me.

Neal Stephenson belongs to the class of greatly-admired, rarely-imitated writers.  Most people know him because of his association with the cyberpunk genre, specifically his seminal Snow Crash.  Stephenson fans know, however, how strange that association is.  Stephenson has really only written 1.5 cyberpunk books out of his 10-ish-title career, and his defining characteristic isn't a genre, but rather a style: brainy, exuberant, curious, digressive, and incredibly amused.

I can't say that I've found an author who satisfies my need for more Stephenson, but I have found a book that answers the demand for more Snow Crash.  Charles Stross's "Halting State" has redeemed Amazon's recommendations engine by giving me a perfect book.  Not perfect for everyone, but perfect for ME, and that's really impressive.

Halting State is cyberpunk, and one of the awesome and frightening things about reading cyberpunk today is realizing that (1) the technology in these books hasn't changed all that much in the last 20 years, and (2) the future keeps on getting shorter.  Stross's "glasses" are more or less the same as William Gibson's "mirrorshades," but we live in a world where augmented reality IS a reality, and the sort of stuff Stross is describing needs only miniaturization.  Stross sets his book just about five years in the future, and while the future there looks very advanced, you can also see clearly how we get there from here.  There's none of that hand-waving that you used to see in cyberpunk.  So what happens when we finally are all living in the future?

There are a lot of vectors that I want to talk about with this book.  First, let's discuss the technology.  There's nothing technically plot-related here, but part of the fun of the book is learning about the world they (we) are living (will live) in, so we'll call these


Back to the glasses.  Because I've been on a Vinge kick lately, my first association with the glasses wasn't with mirrorshades, but with Vinge's "consensus reality."  The ideas are basically the same: you experience the world through a combination of things that are "really" there, based on your ocular sight; and, overlaid on top of those things, you can have arbitrary other things as well.  So, for example, instead of consulting a map for directions, you can just set your destination in your glasses, and have an arrow that consistently points in the direction you need to go.  In more advanced cases, you can actually replace physical objects with some other form; so, you could walk through a city but see it as it was in 1906, or play a game where everyone looks like an orc.  The glasses are yet another example of pervasive computing - with a worldwide network to draw on, our everyday moments can be augmented with arbitrary information; in a sense these are hallucinations, but we share these hallucinations with everyone else, and so can treat them as real.  It reminds me a lot of the philosopher Berkeley's arguments for the existence of God, in which he makes the fascinating argument that there is no such thing as matter or the physical world; all we have are thoughts and experiences.  If you consider it that way, then as long as you are receiving sensations that match those of the physical world, then that is just as "real" as the real world, even if it is originating in a computer.

One of the things I geeked out on the most had to do with public-key encryption (PKE).  (Sorry!)  As you probably know, all of our commerce and all of our most sensitive communication is protected by PKE.  PKE runs over a fundamentally insecure network - anything we send can be viewed by pretty much everyone - but it works because only the recipient of our messages can understand what they contain.  Stross extrapolates from a very real concern in the crypto community about the security of PKE, namely quantum computing.  Nobody is sure yet if it will "work," but the idea is that quantum computers can solve certain types of problems almost instantaneously.  Currently, PKE can be broken, but it's absurdly hard to do so; depending on the key length, a network of today's fasted computers may requite a decade to do so.  Quantum computers might be able to collapse those calculations and crack the key instantly.

So, IF that happens, what's next?  It takes a while for this to become clear, but in Stross's future, the world's governments revert to the only truly unbreakable code that we've ever found: one-time pads.  One-time pads were put to great use during World War II and in the very early years of interconnected computers.  The benefit is that they are unbreakable.  There are two problems: first, the difficulty of distributing the codes to each recipient, and second, the risk that someone will capture the code book, thus gaining total control over all communication.  Back in the 1950's, IBM would hire armed guards who transported locked chests between primitive data centers, loading magnetic tapes with the next month's worth of codes.  The future is back to that again.  Or, rather, over the long term they will replace the insecure IP infrastructure that underlies the Internet, but in the short term, they are reinforcing security along the trunk lines that carry the backbone of Internet communication by requiring the most trusted nodes to authenticate using one-time pads.

What I'm REALLY getting at here is that this is cool, and exciting, and plausible.  It's the best kind of sci-fi, the best kind of cyberpunk, the kind that parses and makes sense and also makes you think, "Why didn't I think of that?"  Gibson didn't have this.  Stephenson had it.  Stross has it in spades.

One of the primary ideas in this book is what he calls ZONE, which is a next-generation MMO platform.  He never stops to spell out every little detail, but someone with enough knowledge of today's networked games can easily reconstruct it.  So: think of World of Warcraft.  It's a HUGE game, incredibly popular, with an enormous number of players; furthermore, there's an exponentially greater number of things other than players, including all the maps, the cities, the non-player-characters, the monsters, the treasure, equipment, gold, weather, music, and so on.  Blizzard makes a ton of money on WoW, but they also spend an insane amount on hosting the servers for all that stuff.  The more popular the game becomes, the more money they need to spend to keep everything running smoothly.  When it doesn't run smoothly, it's because they don't have enough servers or the servers aren't responsive enough, and people get upset and stop playing.  So, there's a huge tension for anyone who's trying to get into this space: you need to balance the need to buy sufficient hardware against the risk of spending too much on hardware and going broke.

To a software engineer, the solution to this problem is obvious: distribute it.  Any time you have a single server, there's a single point of failure and inevitable scaling problems.  Instead of having N servers that can support X gamers, turn each gamer's box into a server; then, you automatically have X servers for X gamers.  Your hardware automatically scales up as your usage scales up, and, best of all, you don't need to pay a dime for it.

This is easier said than done, of course.  Stross impresses me by identifying the problems and describing how they can be resolved.  No single node holds any piece of data; instead, multiple copies are stored on multiple nodes, and are automatically and transparently replicated as nodes drop off and join the network.  A voting system is used to determine the authority of any given node data.  Data is stored in slices, so no node contains too much related data.  Ultimate ownership is protected by a key owned by the owning player or corporation; that key, natch, is backed up by the one-time pads on the core global infrastructure.

Heh.  I get paid to think about this kind of stuff, and I get to read about it for free.  There's a huge amount of geek pleasure in that.


Outside of tech, Stross also makes several predictions about the political and economic future.  He's an English writer, and it's refreshing to read a book that rather pointedly doesn't have much to say about America.  In this future, America isn't really even in contention to be a superpower; at one point a character explains that America was the first country to go post-industrial, and as a result its infrastructure is out of date.  Look at our broadband speeds compared to Japan's, Europe's, and Korea's, and tell me he's wrong.  He also argues that, with a paltry 350 million (the future!) people, America just doesn't have the bandwidth to be a superpower.  That's a less compelling argument to me - look at how long Portugal managed to be a world power, for example - but it makes sense that as the rest of the world gets access to everything that America has, our competitive advantage will slip.

In this future, there are three nations/blocs vying for supremacy: China, India, and an expanded EU.  England has finally joined the EU, and Russia soon will.  Interestingly, in Stross's view, it's the newer, poorer Eastern European countries who have the greatest promise, not the established, wealthier ones.  Again, this comes back to infrastructure: Russia still need to be built out, and it can be built out much more cheaply than it would cost to rebuild England.

Almost the entire book takes place in Scotland.  In a weird bit of maneuvering, Scotland has gained independence from England, yet joined it as a sister state within the EU.  This isn't exactly a focus of the book, but there's lots of fascinating little stuff that Stross casually references about how the countries relate (for example, England's foreign intelligence replaces Scotland's, but the two countries maintain independent domestic intelligence bureaus).  Of course, as a political geek, this is ALSO fascinating to me.

On to the characters:

I really dug them.  There are three main characters, and the POV regularly rotates between them.  I'll get to them in a bit.  The supporting characters are a bit more two-dimensional, but not annoyingly so.  While I suppose you could classify this book as a thriller, it has a strong mystery component, and many of the characters are suspects.  It gets a little hard at times to keep some of them straight... some are well drawn, but other times it's hard to remember how Michael is different from Howard.


Very few male writers seem able to write female characters well, and this tendency appears distressingly strong among sci-fi authors.  Stross does better than most; his Elaine isn't quite believable, but is very likeable.  He keeps on describing her as a "librarian," and I never could quite visualize exactly what he was supposed to be like.  She's a fun mixture of seemingly incongruous interests - she is a financial auditor, but she is passionate about live-action role-playing, including an espionage game; she also is a highly skilled sword fighter.  Not quite Hiro Protagonist, but it's hard to avoid making that association.  Elaine is bright, and also probably the most normal of the three main characters.

Sue... Sue probably had my favorite personality of the three characters, but she seemed to have distressingly little to do.  Almost all of the book's action revolves around Jack and Elaine.  Sue shows up after things happen and plays an expository role, drawing out explanations of what went down and how it affects the plot.  She's a great personality - she's a lesbian Scottish beat cop, who talks and thinks with a thick Scottish burr, and who has mostly needed to worry about dealing with drunks before getting swept up into the events of this book.  She doesn't seem to be quite as bright as the others, but has a great way of reading other people.  I would have liked this book even more if Sue had a bigger part in it.

And Jack... well, Jack's the star.  I started out feeling kind of sorry for him, and ended up really admiring and empathizing with him.  Jack is a coder, and once again, Stross shows that he knows what he's writing about.  Jack doesn't just use the right lingo when describing software; he thinks in the same WAY as many coders, and exhibits the same styles of work, prejudices, and so on.  Late in the book, I started getting a lot of those "Whoa" moments when I realized that Jack was doing something exactly the same way that I would.  Even our neuroses are the same - he has a different origin for his hang-up, but we've ended up in weirdly similar mental boxes.  Of course, this is a novel, so Jack gets to be very heroic and touching.  He's easy to root for, especially if you're a nerd.


Okay, the last major thing to cover would be the writing.  The most distinguishing characteristic of this book is that it's told in the second person.  Each chapter has a particular POV, and using "you" to describe the activities and thoughts of a character.  As in, "You're running late this morning.  The kids kept you up last night, and it was all you could do to make it out the door in time.  Mr. Smith barks, 'Get in here!'  Looks like this will be a rough day."

From an artistic and plot standpoint, this is a defensible decision.  The book is largely about online gaming, and when it isn't about gaming, it's about mediated experiences.  I've long believed that the single most defining characteristic of video games, as opposed to other art forms like books, movies, and the theater, are that they use a second-person perspective.  YOU are the character, you control the path and the outcome; even when a game runs on rails, as in, say, "Digital: A Love Story," its power comes from the idea that this isn't about someone else, it's about you.

So, cool: second person writing, yay.  The only problem is, I found the perspective really, really annoying.  It is increasingly in vogue these days in short fiction - a lot of McSweeney's publications have used it in short pieces - but this is the first time I've encountered it in a full novel, and it didn't wear very well for me.  It feels kind of precious, and ultimately it doesn't really give you any more than a more traditional third-person attached narrator would.  Unlike a video game, we can't really project ourselves onto these characters, and we don't have any control over the outcome of the book, so the metaphor breaks down.  It ends up being a gimmick, and while 10 pages of gimmickry would be interesting, 350 pages gets to be a bit tedious.

Perspective aside, though, the writing is quite good.  It isn't Stephenson's style, which I view as a detriment and many people will view as an asset.  The text is relatively focused; even seeming digressions, such as those about griefing or Chinese gamer clans, are kept relatively brief and have some association with the main plot.  He does take time for character development, but generally in the service of furthering the story.

Some of the writing, and particularly some of the dialog, is just flat-out funny.  Here are a few of my favorite lines:

* "... they're not using the game as a ludic universe to chat in, they're using it as a transport layer!  They're tunnelling TCP/IP over AD&D!"
* "... you had to stick Python on your phone before you even opened it's address book because not being able to brainwash it left you feeling handicapped, like you were a passenger instead of a pilot. In another age you would have been a railway mechanic or a grease monkey crawling over the spark plugs of a DC-3. This is what you are, and the sad fact is, they can put the code monkey in a suit, but they can't take the code out of the monkey."

Halting State was an excellent book.  Again, I'm probably more disposed to enjoy it than almost anyone else due to my interests and background, but I can still recommend it to just about everyone.  In the worst case, you'll get an interesting and compelling vision of what the world might look like five years from now, wrapped inside a gripping thriller story.  In the best case, you'll enjoy that rarest of pleasures, a novel about software written by someone who actually knows what he's talking about.  After such a long wait, it feels wonderful to finally have a book that I can shelve alongside Snow Crash.

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