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Literature / Halting State

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Halting State is a 2008 Post-Cyberpunk novel by Charles Stross.

Sue, a police officer in Edinburgh, responds to a call about a theft at a software company, only to learn that what was stolen is a bit out of her area of expertise: several hundred thousand Euros worth of virtual valuables from Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. To make things more interesting, one of the company's main programmers, a reclusive work-from-home type, is missing without a trace, and nobody in the office can recall having ever seen him.

Elaine is a Forensic Accountant, who specializes in digging through other peoples' books to look for evidence of fraud or other financial negligence. She is also a reenactor and a sword-fighting enthusiast. Her company sends her to Edinburgh to try and find out if one of their clients was up to some shady business leading up to the robbery.

Jack is incredibly hungover, recently laid-off from his programming job, and handcuffed to a signpost somewhere in the Netherlands, with a Dutch cop standing in front of him expecting a good explanation for how he got there. Upon returning home to Scotland, Jack signs up with a temp agency to find more work. He is surprised to see that he is almost immediately hired as a consultant with Elaine's company to help investigate what happened in Edinburgh.

All three of these people are going to quickly realize they might be in over their heads as the online bank robbery proves to be much more than it seems. In a World… where Everything Is Online (really), even the cops and the criminals, these three characters will have to think on their feet once something manages to compromise the network and use it against them.

A sequel, Rule 34, is available now.

This book provides examples of:

  • 419 Scam: An email which at first appears to be this (and in fact is dismissed as such by the spam filter) may actually be 100% truthful, revealing where the villain stashed his stolen money. He might have even chosen the Nigeria Petroleum Bank precisely for its memetic role in this kind of scams.
  • Alternate Reality Game: Elaine subscribes to a game called SPOOKS, where the players get to live action role play as espionage agents performing various tasks. Jack used to play, but cancelled his subscription. Turns out, it wasn't a game after all.
  • Arc Words: Potemkin Villages.
  • Augmented Reality: The main reason to wear glasses in this setting. They give travel directions, restaurant reviews, and even serve as a user interface for various video games. Of course, they can be messed with by someone with the right motivation and tools.
  • Becoming the Mask: Jack and Elaine discovered that SPOOKS was a secret recruiting and training tool, and that they have been trained in all the spycraft skills they need.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Cameras everywhere, networked together. Somewhat subverted, in that facial recognition software is stated as being too CPU-intensive to actually be useful or anything to be concerned about. The cameras are only really useful for investigating crimes after the fact, or in concert with other technologies, like the phones that can track your location anywhere they can get a signal.
    • Also subverted, in that the police are being watched by Big Brother even more closely than anyone else: The cops are required to have cameras on their person running at all times to avoid being falsely accused of Police Brutality (and of course, to prevent cops from actually committing Police Brutality.) They also make great records of crime scene investigations and witness interviews and what not.
  • Brick Joke: The chair from Jack's introduction, and Jack's inability to remember the circumstances around it.
  • British Coppers: One of the main characters, Sue, is a uniformed Scottish constable working in Edinburgh. She ends up spending much of the book attached to Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh, a plainclothes cop.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: Jack and Elaine did not end up involved in the plot purely by chance.
  • The Cavalry: Sue and her partner link up with Jack and Elaine towards the end, having been ordered to track them down and protect them from the bad guys. They are distracted by a flashmob set up by the villain, allowing him to get past them to try and go after Jack and Elaine, but return once he has been subdued.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The broadsword that Elaine finds she has bought on a whimnote  while on a alcohol-fueled tourist tour of Edinburgh on her first day after arriving in Scotland. The SPOOKS game as well.
    • Chekhov's Skill: Elaine's swordfighting skill, and the fact that Jack used to be a game programmer who created various black-hat network tools for his former employers.
  • Cool Shades: Everybody wears computerized glasses that connect to their cell phones to provide them with a wide variety of information, ranging from video game interfaces to visualiations of bus routes, reviews of businesses that the wearer is looing at, and even tactical information for police officers during raids. Towards the end of the book, the glasses become a liability when the cops' computer network is compromised, but a few of the younger cops continue wearing their deactivated glasses out of habit.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Suspicion quickly homes in on the top echelons of Hayek Associates, since they're the most probable leakers. It turns to be a particularly greedy executive who had hedged 26 million pounds against his own company, much to Jack and Elaine's confusion—after all, what executive would bet against a Potemkin company backed by the British security services that he was paid to manage? Turned out, Hackman didn't know that British intel was using the company as a front; he just saw a profitable place to betray.
  • Dark Secret: Jack is a registered sex offender, due to a poorly written law that classified both him and his girlfriend in high school as being pedophiles because they were underage and making out with each other.
    • More importantly, his entire surviving family died years before in a car accident and he has been living in denial with the help of an online service that simulates them still being alive and interacting with him.
  • Dead All Along: Jack's "kidnapped" niece. His sister and her daughters were killed in a traffic accident years before, and he had been living in denial with the help of an Alternate Reality Game tailored to people like him.
  • Everything Is Online: Your computer, your cell phone, the taxi cab, the police, your glasses, and your spies. And the other side's spies. The characters end up having to go through pains to go off the grid and avoid being tracked or listened in on.
  • Extended Disarming: Jack, when told to leave his electronic devices outside a secret meeting.
  • Fan of the Past: Elaine, who practices swordfighting in her free time.
  • Foreign Queasine: In one scene, Jack, Elaine, and a third character go to a restaurant that serves an "Authentic Scottish Breakfast". Note that Edinburgh native Jack digs in with gusto, while Londoner Elaine manages to go through the entire meal having only eaten a few bites of her mostly-fried greasy food.
  • Forensic Accounting: Elaine's specialty, being sent in by the insurance company to ensure that the reported robbery isn't just one of their customers trying to cover up some shady financial practices.
  • Genre Blind: All three main characters, to varying degrees, though they all start catching up quick. Sue's narration explicitly indicates that she is furiously taking notes and actively doing research on many of the things she is unfamiliar with, particularly the technology side of things.
  • Greed: Had one of Red Team's members not gotten greedy and tried to line his own pockets, no one would have even noticed the Chinese infiltration.
  • Goggles Do Something Unusual: The glasses that everyone wears are equipped for Augmented Reality. The police are forced to operate without theirs when they realize their network has been compromised and they can no longer trust any of the information their glasses present them with.
  • The Handler: Barry Michaels, who helped to run SPOOKS, and who recruits both Elaine and Jack to help hunt down the leak.
  • I Have Your Wife: Jack receives a series of messages that eventually reveal that his niece has been kidnapped, but that nothing will happen to her if he walks away from the investigation. It doesn't quite work as planned, see Dead All Along.
  • I Know Mortal Kombat: Jack and Elaine unwittingly became trained espionage agents, due to playing an Alternate Reality Game covertly developed by the Secret Service specifically for this.
  • Interface Screw: The fancy Augmented Reality glasses worn by everybody turn out to be susceptible to various electronic attacks, rendering them useless.
  • Jumped at the Call: Elaine, once she fully understands what is going on, partially on the grounds that she's a target anyways so she might as well draw a full-time paycheck for it. Jack is far more hesitant, but is talked into it by Elaine.
  • The Men in Black: Invoked by Kemal's Europol team, and then subverted when they turn out to be going off half-cocked, raiding a secret server farm run by the British Secret Service, which would have been avoided if they had bothered to call ahead before swooping in.
  • Never Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight: Jack chases after a suspected bad guy while both are playing the same Augmented Reality fantasy role-playing game. They get into a fight, where Jack's character (a blunderbuss-wielding bipedal bear) unloads with a virtual BFG. Much to his surprise, his opponent, playing a far weaker character, opts to go for a weak dagger attack instead. Which turns out to have been a real dagger attack. Jack doesn't realize it right away because the knife got embedded in a folding keyboard he had in his pocket.
  • Noodle Incident: As Jack is showing Elaine around in the online world:
    Jack: That's Hell. Don't worry about it, it's just a little joke that got out of hand."
  • Not My Driver: Many of the taxis in this day and age are remote-controlled, and Jack and Elaine are kidnapped by a hijacked cab. They have to figure out how to escape before the cab can get them out into the country and find a convenient bridge to drive off of. It turns out that there have been a recent rash of deaths caused this way.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In-Universe, several of the Scottish cops slip into thicker accents if they are stressed.
  • Paid-for Family: A virtual version is invoked in Jack's sister and niece who have been dead for years.
  • Pocket Protector: Jack's life is saved by one of many pieces of tech gadgetry he habitually carries around with him.
  • Police Are Useless: Sue can't help but notice that she is entirely unqualified to deal with the sort of problems the plot forces upon her. She is dragged along for the ride because she was the cop on the scene, and spends the entire book trying to catch up. The Scottish police officers get to see this trope on a different scale when a team from EuroPol swoop in unannounced, make a huge mess, and then leave, further escalating the situation without doing much to help. That said, the police investigation does eventually allow for Sue to be on the scene when the Big Bad is revealed and to help when Jack is shot. Most of the shortcomings that Sue suffers in dealing with the plot is simply a lack of training.
  • Pun: Jack's online avatar is a shotgun-wielding bear. He states that he believes in the Right To Keep And Arm Bears. He then waits for the obligatory groan.
  • The Reveal: Jack's niece hasn't been kidnapped. He knows this because she's been dead for years, but he's been paying a company to simulate his sister and nieces still being alive and interacting with him so he could live in denial.
  • Shout-Out: Jack uses his Augumented Reality glasses to enliven a bus ride with "a wee dip into Ankh-Morpork". In addition to being a Terry Pratchett shout out, it may also be a nod at Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge, which also features an AR based on the Disc.
  • Social Engineering: Sue is very good at this, using her status as a cop to make people nervous and see what information she can get out of them. However, she is hoping to find someone who will go on the defensive and be uncooperative with her, such a person being most likely to be in on the crime. To her ongoing chagrin, she keeps finding people who will bend over backward to help her in any way they can, providing her with lots of useless information.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Lampshaded. Later in the book, Jack can't remember if the chair was on fire or not at the beginning of the story.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Discussed Trope: Most of the footwork in espionage work is done by "Useful Idiots", people performing specific tasks (delivering a package, installing a piece of networking hardware, etc.) without any larger context for them to realize the signficance of their actions. Both Jack and Elaine fit this category, with the intelligence services grooming them for potential official employment.
  • Violent Glaswegian: Never seen, but much of Sue's thoughts concern an increasingly neglected case of one such fellow that she really needs to do the paperwork on once she finishes dealing with this case.
  • We Will Use WikiWords in the Future: The computer network that all of the cops are connected to is called CopSpace, functioning in pretty much the exact same way as many of the Alternate Reality Games that the various civilians play.
  • What Are Records?: Late in the story, the fact that nobody keeps paper around becomes an issue for the cops when they are forced to go entirely off the net because their entire system has been compromised and they can no longer use any of their computers or official phones.
  • White-Collar Crime: Much of the work that Jack used to do was along these lines, developing "Stress Testing" tools to crash the servers of competing companies to motivate customers to use their products instead. Ultimately, it ends up being the motivation for the villain to unwittingly ally himself with Team Red, and by extension, the Guoanbu.
  • You Are Not Alone: Elaine, having learned about Jack's family, assures him that he isn't alone in the world, because he has her.