Charlie Stross's Halting State: Heist novel about an MMORPG

Charlie Stross's latest novel Halting State starts out as a hilarious post-cyberpunk police procedural, turns into a gripping post-cyberpunk technothriller, and escalates into a Big Ideas book about the future of economics, virtual worlds, the nation state and policing, while managing to crack a string of geeky in-jokes, play off a heaping helping of gripping action scenes, and telling a pretty good love story.

Here's the gimmick: Halting State opens when a virtual bank in a distributed, multiplayer world is robbed by a horde of orcs who march in and clean it out of all its prestige items and other loot, a direct frontal assault on the game-economy's integrity. The losses run to millions, which triggers an insurance audit -- led by Elaine, who's not only a forensic accountant, but also a sword-swinging LARPer who likes her espionage alternate reality games. She contracts with Jack, an extraordinary gamespace hacker who's just been made redundant from his Edinburgh gaming company, to serve as her native guide, and finds herself working alongside of Sue, a lesbian mom detective-sergeant with the Edinburgh Polis who has been called to the scene with a report of a "robbery" and is now duty-bound to pursue the matter in compliance with the tenets set out in the ISO 9000 binder for police-stations.

I've been following Halting State since Charlie and I sat in a coffee shop in the Strand in London about five years ago and talked about a novel about a "multimillion dollar heist in gamespace." It's a sticky idea, and one that a lot of us are going to end up playing with over the years -- but it's also clearly one that Charlie has had an indecent amount of fun playing with. This is his tightest-plotted novel to date, a detective story with a million perfectly meshed moving parts, and a hundred magnificent surprises that had me gasping and shouting YES (to the general alarm of the guy in the next seat on my airplane).

This is the apotheosis of Stross -- a book chock-a-block with great ten-minutes-from-now technology (big hunks of the plot hinge on anonymized digicash, onion-routers, FreeNet crypto, and GNU Radio), RPG humor straight off Phil Foglio's old Dragon Magazine strip, and an impassioned series of valentines to Edinburgh, Charlie's adopted hometown.

Blend an Iain Banks thriller with a copy of Count Zero, throw in the Tokyo Games Show and a Bourne movie (and possibly a Bourne shell) and you've got something approximating Halting State. This is a book that will change the way you see the way the world works. Link


  1. Great review, clicked and ordered it. Yes, publishing your work for free, like Stross has done with Accelerando and Cory has done with Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and other works sells books. Thanks guys! It’s working.

    Patiently waiting for Iain Banks’ next Culture novel (February)…

  2. Just tore through “Glasshouse” a couple of nights ago – looking forward to this as well as the next book in the Eschaton series. Haven’t been this excited about finding a new great sf author since Egan.

  3. Just recently got into Stross, though I’ve been meaning to for a while, in part because of this site. Recently read Accelerando, my first, and already ordered two others.

    I’ll probably wait for paperback for this, but it sounds interesting enough that I’ll pick it up eventually.

    (And yeah, publishing work for free does have some attractive benefits – my current read is Peter Watts Blindsight, which I wouldn’t have even heard of if not for BB pimping the fact that it was put free online, and my loving the first chapter and deciding I had to read it all in paper format)

  4. In the virtual world product known previously as WorldsAway and now as VZones, which has been online for a good 11 years now, somebody found an exploit in the client code that allowed them to withdraw hundreds of millions of tokens (the in-world currency) from the virtual world’s ATMs.

  5. Has anyone besides me noticed that Jonathan Davis, lead singer of Korn, bears a striking resemblance to Oliver Hardy of Laurel and Hardy fame?

  6. With the US dollar being fairly weak these days, would there be much point in waiting for the UK version?

  7. Haha![/Nelson] I thought at first they were still using the awful cover that so mortified Charlie, but it looks like the jacket designers had a go at scotchifying the original image after all.


  8. So, when will I be able to become a member of the Boing Boing Book Club? You’ve got Oprah beat by a long shot.

  9. Hmm, the premise of a “bank heist” in an MMORPG is intriguing, but it’s highly unlikely.

    Any time anyone’s hacked the actual game, they’ve gotten punished and banned.

    The Eve situation was a result of gullible players.

    Most modern MMORPGs are successful at thwarting this sort of thing through design.

  10. “Any time anyone’s hacked the actual game, they’ve gotten punished and banned.”

    But isn’t the point of the book tracking down who did it?

    if you stop being hyper-critical you might get the point.

  11. DWIM: you’re looking at the ship date for the mass market paperback edition. The first UK edition will be a trade paperback, in mid-January 2007. (In compensation for the extra wait, some typos in the US first edition will be fixed in the UK first edition.) Hope this helps!

  12. Perfect timing! I just finished re-reading Acclerando and was mildly irritated that my brain had to spin down to normal levels until new Charles Stross came out. Just ordered the book from Amazon.

  13. About fucking time someone else, since Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, did a High Concept “predictive fiction” like this. Seriously, these are the topics we’ve been needing to discuss since the beginning of the 21st century — not YouTube and MySpace and all that other “Web 2.0” crap.

  14. @big daddy

    “Any time anyone’s hacked the actual game, they’ve gotten punished and banned.”

    Well, when somebody hacked several million from the ATMs in the virtual world product WorldsAway/Vzones like I was talking about, the problem was they rapidly distributed the funds and inflated the entire virtual world’s economy.

    When the SysOps realized what had happened, banning the one person wouldn’t fix the problem. It was too late.

  15. Highly unlikely!

    If you rob a bank, and are caught, you will be in *big trouble*. You might even end up going to jail, or worse have your accounts closed and lose your “free checking for life”.

    Little known fact, this is why no one robs banks anymore.

  16. Charlie — yeah, but you’ll screw up all the quote marks. So you say there’s typo improvement, but do you mean it.

    Also: are there any ninjas in this book? I don’t understand why they call you a writer of ninja fiction.

    Maybe the ninjas are just always invisible. Being ninjas.

  17. I just finished the book and it has some very good theories. My wife and I both play MMOs and I was wondering how he would explain the whole bank robbery thing but I was very happy with the technical explanation.

    Some of the biggest problems that I have with books about the near future(even though I love reading them) is that some of the changes just don’t seem to be possible in the short amount of time or even long term. This book is a lot better in that respected compared to some of the other singularity-themed books.

    Great book!!!!

  18. I came around to Halting State in a Highly Unusual Manner. See, I’ve actually been involved in a ‘heist’ through a MMORPG. Unfortunately, unlike as depicted in the book – a guild of orcs storming he bank – the truth is far more mundane, and also ‘interesting’. It involved generating ‘rollbacks’ through glitching the client/server protocols, using a lot of
    ‘friends’ to help out overload server response times, and then shifting the massively duplicated goods to a number of unrelated player accounts. I made enough money out of it to live on for a few weeks. I didn’t need the money, I was involved in a guild who existed to hack MMOs in general, just for the challenge. The security hole was plugged within a few days. Then it was off to see what we could do to the PVP system. It was a lot of fun at the time.

    My one caveat with this book is that most of the critics and commentators are saying ‘this is the near future’. It’s not. If you know where to look and who to hang out with — most of the ‘tech’ elements of the story are NOW. LARPS are for weirdos IMHO, but sign me up for SPOOKS 2.0.

    Can you imagine it? “Osama B. Laden, you just got PWNED!”

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