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Halting State -- Charles Stross

I don’t really have a lot to say about this book that hasn’t been said more elegantly elsewhere. I liked it, but that was mostly on the strength of Charlie’s engagement with nascent technology and the things that one might do with it, and the feverish density of ideas which he manages to put across. This mostly got me over the indifferent characterization and warmed-over plot. I really liked it when Stross wrote about things other than spies, but I sympathize with the difficulty of trying to write a positive near future scenario with a world impacting plot that doesn’t involve geopolitical intrigue somehow.

That said, reading other people’s reviews and talking to people about his books, I’ve realized that I have problems with Strossian plots that other people do not have, and this one especially. As a coder, I have a lot of trouble just sort of accepting the technobabble at face value.

Don’t get me wrong. Most people in SF and in fiction in general don’t engage with computers and networking or their potential well at all. I am glad that someone is doing it, and generally doing it so well. Stross’ speculations are fascinating, and honestly I would buy a book that was just him blue-skying about the next twenty-five years of IT and computing. At the moment, no one is writing more interesting SF about near future technology. So most people should just stop here. It’s a good book, although not his strongest work. The following is most likely going to be the computer person equivalent of an undersexed physics post-grad picking apart a space opera for inconsistencies. But what is the internet for if not to embarrass ourselves in public?

I’ll address my pedantic concerns from least to greatest. There will be many spoilers.

  • The glasses bothered me. They are essentially magic, in a book set ten years in the future. From his glancing description, they would require major breakthroughs in at least three and more likely five fields: Battery energy densities, computer vision, and materials science for starters, and possibly processor design and low-power, high-bandwidth wireless as well. Just ten years out for all of this? I would bet that we’ll have something like these ten years from now, but they’ll almost certainly be tethered to something in your pocket for power and processing. I would love to be wrong, though. Fucking batteries. The computer vision aspect is the one that I really doubt will happen, though.

  • The Zone, the distributed platform upon which the gaming system in book runs, seems to me to be less overambitious so much as just really inefficient. You’d need to over-provision so much in terms of storage and processing power that surely it would be cheaper to rent VMs in local colos and not have to worry about all of the client security issues. I am guessing that you’d need at least ten times as much horsepower to do it in an entirely distributed fashion, and ultimately quality of service would suffer. I just can’t imagine it working, even with symmetric 1Mbps broadband to the pocket and mobile phones that are sixty times faster than those today, assuming that Moore’s law hasn’t bottomed out by then.

    Note that I don’t think that it’s impossible, I just don’t think that it’s as much of a moneymaker as being able to charge a slightly higher price but be able to guarantee levels of service and responsiveness. The real gating factors for these games are the graphics and the bandwidth, it’d be cheaper and safer just for someone to start a company that seeded cheap, trusted simulation nodes all around the world in colos with massive bandwidth, expanding and collapsing how many nodes each sim was running on based on demand, and charging for runtime only, especially with the large amount of shared code infrastructure that he seems to imply. You wouldn’t get the automatic scale-up in power that you would get as consumers gradually replaced their phones, but I think that the higher availability of servers and the ability to actually target how much horsepower you’d need would more than make up for it.

    Tangentially, distributed file systems and databases are of a much harder class of problem than distributed simulation with untrusted processing nodes, but someone might figure that out at any point, so it’s not really fair to bet against it.

* Another thing that bothered me about the zone was the common platform that allowed people to migrate avatars and items between games. But then I read an article about that today on Raph Koster’s site, so what do I know. We’re pretty close to the point at which large scale semi-distributed simulation stuff is middleware, and I doubt that it’ll be long before some startup starts capturing major market share by offering common infrastructure for MMOGs and Virtual Worlds and the big companies stop bothering to roll their own. I just didn’t think that the companies would go for sharing or easy migration, but perhaps I have too little faith.

  • Perhaps I misunderstood the Scottish network infrastructure that he described, but a national, wired internet backbone that could be compromised by the exposure of a single one time pad? Huh? I know that Stross knows better than this. Unfortunately, major parts of the plot pivot on this, which made it kind of troublesome for me. I’ll have to take another look to make sure that I have it right.

  • The last thing that bothered me was most crucial, I think, to the plot, as it’s what gets the whole ball rolling. The vaunted MMORPG Bank Heist. If someone has already owned the game to the point that they can call up the bank accounts of random players, why the hell do they need to announce this? Presumably one could just vanish all of those items from people’s bank accounts without ever having to bother entering the bank at all. Also, putting a bank in a PvP zone generally doesn’t happen. Additionally, making the bank structure assaultable by people in the game is a much higher level of simulational fidelity than most game developers would bother with.

So there you have it. I have bored even myself. Four or so ideas out of a couple of hundred that seemed sound to me. Unfortunately, some of them are quite important to the plot. I’m just anticipating talking to some people about the book and coming up with an entirely disjunct set of issues to talk about than someone non-technical.

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