Book Notes – Halting State – Charles Stross

Where do you begin with this book.  When books have great thoughts in them and I’m in a remembering mood I bend back the lower corners to be able to find whatever it was made you chuckle, or roll your eyes back and think, at the time.  This book has a host of them.

First comment has to be the narrative style — I’d heard of Second Person narration, but can’t remember second person narration that shifts in each chapter and is identified up front.  As Cory Doctorow points out, it works.  And it makes the tech fiction in the pieces really punch.

Your smartphone’s nagging you about hitting your transferrable overtime limit, and you’ve already blown your quota for time off this month; if this goes on you’re gonnae have to put it on upaid hours and file for a time credit from Human Resources.  It’s even been threatening to snitch it to the Occupational Health Department that your Work/Life Balance is out of kilter; if this goes on, it’ll be off to the compulsory Yoga and Aromatherapy classes with Stress Management for you.

Classic to think what a public service employee (she’s a Scottish Cop) will have to put up with when the phone is tracking time and talking to the bureaucracies.

In the office we’ve started using both enterprise video conferencing and local Skype or video ichat.  No longer first generation, but hardly ready to jump the Chasm.  Here is a great one for when video interviewing is in full adoption — and the computers have the ability to manipulate the signal in realtime:

‘Good.’ Mr. Pin-Stripe nods, jerkily, at which point the brilliantly photorealistic anonymizing pipeline stumbles for a the first time, and his avatar falls all the way down the wrong side of uncanny valley — his neck crumples inwards disturbingly before popping back into shape.  (You can fool all of the pixels some of the time, or some of the pixels all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the pixels all of the time.)

And of course the implication of ubiquitous broadband wifi, gps-driven data overlays and internet-enabled glasses could be quite useful to the police — or Polis as they are called in independent Scotland in the 2020s.

CopSpace sheds some light on matters, of course.  Blink and it descends in its full glory.  Here’s the spiralling red diamond of a couple of ASBO cases on the footpath (orange jackets,blue probation service tags saying they’re collecting litter.)  There’s the green tree of signs sporouting over the doorway of number thirty-nine, each tag naming the legal tenants of a different flat.  Get your dispatcher to drop you a ticket, and the signs open up to give you their full police and social services case files, where applicable.  There’s a snowy blizzard of number plates sliding up and down Bruntsfield Place behind you, and the odd flashing green alert tag in the side roads.  This is the twenty-first century, and all the terabytes of CopSpace have exploded out of the dusty manila files and into the real world, sprayed across it in a Technicolor mass of officious labelling and crime notes.

Sound far-fetched?  Consider the Lumus glasses that were at CES this year.

Of course it doesn’t have to be technology to be good science fiction.  It can also be something as archane as describing bureaucracy … just in the future.

‘It’s about the car insurance.’ […] ‘What’s the damage?’ ‘Well, Sally’s carrying six points on her license and she had that car-park smash last year.  She’ll lose her no-claims discount, which’ll cost us about eight hundered extra when we renew the insurance.’
‘Ouch.’  Driving’s an expensive pastime even before you factor in deisel at €5 a litre, speed cameras every quarter kilometre on all the A-roads, and insurance companies trying to rape the motorists to recoup their losses on teh flood-plain property slump. ‘Who are you with?’
‘Nationwide.’
Well, that’s a relief – an old-fashioned mutual society, instead of a pay-by-credit-card web server owned by Nocturnal Aviation Associates Dot Com (motto: ‘We fly by night’) out the back of a cybercafe in Lagos.

Or just some fun — thinking of how unsettling virtual reality can be when mixed with real life.

Yesterday upon the stair I met a man that wasn’t there.  He wasn’t there again today, I wish that man would go away.

Book Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

It is funny when you stumble across a book that immediate grabs you.  I came across Snow Crash staying at a friends in Auckland, picked it up and didn't put it down until it was done.

Here's the opening line:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category. He's got esprit up to here. Right now he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

Classic cyber-punk in a way with all of the great references to science fiction technology.  But this man isn't a mercenary — he is in pizza delivery.

Why is the Deliverator so equipped? Because people rely on him. He is a roll model. This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world. When it gets down to it–we're talking trade balances here–once we've brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they're making cars in Bolivia and microwaves in Tadzhikistan and selling them here–once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel–once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani bricklayer would consider to be prosperity–y'know what? There's only four things we do better than anyone else

music
movies
microcode (software)
high-speed pizza delivery

The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education Ph.D.s, the Deliverator's report card would say; "Hiro is so bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills."

Absolutely fantastic.

The book carries on to introduce virtual reality and a prescient (or proscriptive?) version of Second Life called the Meta-Verse, but that can be found in reviews all over the net. 

More interesting to me is the tying of economics, sociology and good character development.  Take this final excerpt about our Deliverator's life code which is based on Sumari culture:

"There's no difference between modern culture & Sumerian. We have a huge workforce that is illiterate or aliterate & relies on TV–which is sort of an oral tradition. And we have a small, extremely literate power elite–the people who go into [cyberspace], basically–who understand that information is power, & who control society because they have the semimystical ability to speak magic computer languages."