Charles Stross is an English SF writer, born in Leeds (1964). I have no doubts that he is amongst the most interesting authors in the genre working today, and I am personally developing quite a taste for his dense, clever fiction, of which I’ve gone through four books so far (just the tip of the iceberg… see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Stross).
The last one I’ve read, Halting State (2007, a Hugo and Locus nominee) came quite as a surprise, for it is set in an independent Scotland (supposedly separated from the UK in 2006). I didn’t know that Stross has been an Edinburgh resident for a while, and I’m at a loss to understand why the collective volume edited by Caroline McCracken-Flesher, Scotland As Science Fiction (2012) doesn’t devote some room to Halting State (four of Stross’s books, including this one, are just mentioned in the bibliography). Perhaps this has to do with Stross’s being born in England. Funnily, SF magazine Asimov called Stross, a “new Scottish writer.” As he explains in an interview, though, he’s rather, “a bit of an anomaly” as he’s quite rootless (“just happen to have settled in Edinburgh for a while”) and too experienced an author to be called ‘new’ (he started publishing in 1987; see the interview at: https://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=1096).
Those of us who enjoy SF always tell each other that only SF writers truly understand the world we live in. I stand by this. Halting State is a political thriller based on the idea that the online World of Warcraft might be used as a gigantic online platform for espionage by devious agencies exploiting unsuspecting players. Guess what? NSA was doing exactly that (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/09/nsa-world-of-warcraft_n_4413914.html). This is why after Edward Snowden’s heroic revelations, Stross gave up plans for the third part in the intended trilogy (there’s a second novel, Rule 34 (2011)). “Sometimes,” Stross wrote in his blog, “I wish I’d stuck with the spaceships and bug-eyed monsters. Realism in fiction is over-rated.” (https://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2013/12/psa-why-there-wont-be-a-third-.html).
In the same post, Stross explains that another good reason to stop the trilogy on its track is the oncoming Scottish referendum on independence (18 September 2014). Also the still date-less referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Union. Scotland might certainly change too much for a novelist to write about it consistently during the same period and so, Stross concludes, he’ll either have to wait (or set his futuristic thrillers elsewhere). Still, some lessons can be drawn for real politics in Scotland from the nation’s bolder version in Halting State, where the Scottish Republic is a member of the European Union enjoying the benefits of the euro. I worried that Stross had picked up on the new state to discuss its particular vulnerability to cyberwar but this is not the case. Rather, I got the impression that the point he was making is that any state, new or old, is absolutely vulnerable (and that the Scots end up managing the crisis quite well).
Stross is quite sceptical about the SNP’s view of Scottish independence but even so his own independent Scotland works. By this I mean than in Halting State the Scottish background feels quite ‘natural,’ as if the new Scotland were one more country, with the same problems as others. There’s been no major crisis with the rest of the UK, apparently, which is mentioned, rather, as previously overdoing the possible effects of the split. This lack of historical hysterics is quite refreshing for me, a Catalan reader tired and disgusted with the mismanagement by both sides of a similar situation back home. Imagine a Carlos Pérez, from Valladolid, living in Barcelona and writing a futuristic thriller set in a near-future Catalan Republic and you’ll quickly see what I mean.
Stross’s prose is notoriously packed with cutting-edge technological information and he has been often criticised for writing just for the handful of nerds who can follow it. I don’t claim to be one of them but, then, what I like is that I have to struggle with Stross’s (post-)cyberpunk view of the world, as this is the only one that really makes sense today. There’s a very funny, very scary moment in which the Edinburgh police squad chasing the bad guys realise that their cell phones are compromised but they need to stay in touch anyway –they go crazy figuring out how to be invisible to Big Brother out there. This is something all of us can understand.
The lesson, ultimately, that Halting State offers is a very serious warning: you may live in independent Scotland or Catalonia, or be firmly attached to the UK or Spain, but what really matters is that you’ll be subject to thorough, intrusive, malignant surveillance all the same.
Brave new (2.0) world…
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