Bit of a break from history this week. I want to recommend a recent book to you: Halting State by Charles Stross. And I want to talk about the ideas in it. So, recommendation – read the book. There’s that done. But have you ever considered what it means to read fiction?
I took a class a few years ago that was, in a way, about the novel tradition. We started with Don Quixote and read books about people who live their lives influenced by books. The argument of the class, and some of the articles we read in it, was that this theme reflects the nature of the novel itself. The novel, this theory says, is by its nature self-reflexive, because of how long it takes the reader to get through the book. And so culturally we started absorbing fiction into our lives in a way we didn’t before.
We’re all nerds here, we know exactly what that’s like. Delany’s said that reading SF is a different skill than reading just about any other genre of literature, so we all know this better than a lot of literary critics do – though obviously some worked it out. We use fiction to structure our lives. Just like people use(d) mythology to structure lives, we use our fiction. Grant Morrison (remember him?) described superheroes, in his book Supergods, as spirit figures we can summon to help us, the way voodoo practitioners summon loa to ride them. We can do that with any character, but we also love the worlds. Like Don Quixote, we often take fictions, stitch them together, and make our world out of them. You can see this in microcosm, in finer form, with steampunks, who use their aesthetic to structure not only their clothing, but their behavior and their response to the world. Steampunks are known for a certain DIY attitude – which is honestly, at this point, the only connection to the “punk” part the movement retains in general. But we all do it, even if we don’t adhere so closely to the tenets of the Force that we put “Jedi” on our religious identification.
Halting State is about that in the same way Don Quixote is. It’s a near-future SF story where AR glasses, more powerful phones, and ubiqiuitous wifi has made a world similar to, but brighter than, the 80s cyberpunk world. Everyone’s wired. Business executives buy 1,000 euro designer AR glasses, computer programmers project virtual keyboards to code in “Python 3000” on the subway. It’s magical and pretty awesome.
Let me pull out one scene to deal with particularly. At one point two characters, Elaine and Jack, have to go to a SF con in order to track down a thief. When they pull up the MMO overlay (it’s more complicated than that, but we don’t have a whole book to detail the way games work exactly here) everyone’s projecting an avatar to any AR glasses programmed to pick them up. A seller’s booth becomes a crypt, with CGI vapor pouring out while goblins, Victorian gentlemen, and aliens pick through the antique pen-and-paper DnD books. Jack fights with the thief both IRL and online, fighting in character in the MMO in order to keep him from blocking up his IP history. Meanwhile there’s some IRL stabbing going on.
There’s another point where Sue, the third protagonist, loses her police-issue AR glasses and gets mil-spec ones instead. She sees a whole new world around her, information she didn’t even know was there. It’s not new information, it’s old information, but it was literally invisible to her because she didn’t have the right program.
The book’s about the nature of fiction, I think, especially the strength and goodness of it. It structures our world. We’ve always used stories to make sense of things – and I don’t just mean that we explained thunder by saying it was Thor’s hammer, I mean we explain the entire world, the way we move in it, with stories. It’s just fiction now, for most of us. Especially nerds. Halting State uses the AR glasses, the digital overlays on analog meatspace, to show us a visual, metaphoric representation of the action of layering fiction onto reality. In a practical sense everyone in the world does it, all the time, because we don’t interact with the world, we interact with our ideas of it. Have you ever interacted with something you didn’t think about? We make abstractions and organize the world according to them.
This sort of fiction-making isn’t always good. Racism is basically a story, that people are representative, that they have outward signs of quality we can read, and that [insert race here] is good. But we all know this fiction-making can help cure that, too. It’s hard to maintain that kind of fiction when you’re imbibing novel after novel dealing with what humanity is in the face of what it absolutely isn’t, what it can’t be – aliens and monsters that almost always represent something we’re nervous about, something “real,” but are also demonstrably not human because they came from Rigel 6.
So it’s the laying down of ideas onto the world that Halting State is about. It shows us what that might be like if we could process MMO data on something smaller than a smartphone. But it’s also about what fiction has done since its inception: make ways for us to deal with things. And I haven’t even gone into the ARGs. People play ARGs like SPOOKS, where you get anonymous phone calls to make drops or tail people, other players. A huge network of fake spies trailing other fake spies. But I can’t tell you much more, because that’s very important to the plot of the novel. And you’re going to go read it, so I shouldn’t say any more.