Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Orbit (24 Jan 2008)
If there's an author out there who can mix fast story with a torrent of ideas, it's Charles Stross. And unlike many authors, he's not particularly a series writer (the Laundry and Merchant Princes books aside, and the latter is more one long story broken into manageable chunks).
So, here we have a standalone novel, set in a future that (excluding actual Scottish independence) is almost on top of us right now. It's ... hmm, 2018? Sgt. Sue Smith of the Edinburgh Constabulary has been called out to the scene of a bank robbery, but unfortunately for her skill set, it turns out to be a robbery inside an MMORG. And we encounter Elaine (a forensic accountant sent in by investors to try to uncover where the loot went (after all, it has real value)), and Jack (a game coder who has just been made redundant, and is hired as a 'native guide'). Of course, given that the ownership of items in the game is managed using highly encrypted and redundant keys running on computing swarms, the ability to actually reassign items has certain wider implications that only slowly percolate through.
All three of these we encounter in second person singular present tense (though it's an incredible discipline, and there are the odd places where a past tense creeps into the middle of this (p114 if anyone is making corrections)). This brings an immediacy to the story that could have gone seriously wrong, but doesn't. This book demands freshness, because it's almost certainly going to look daft within a decade - that's the danger that books set so close to the present that aren't in the present are subject to. (Just think of all those cold-war thrillers published as the Berlin Wall went down - that's the danger of the near future.) On the other hand, it does show some possible ways that current trends may lead, making predictions that are relevant to the here and now, because they're in planning range. Few writers are brave enough to attempt it, because it requires genuine research, and scads of it, rather than invention or turning to the common consensuses of how the future will be a few hundred years hence.
(A prediction that doesn't come true isn't necessarily a failure - it can have been a warning that was heeded.)
Oh yes, there's a picture of the author on the back cover, nicely discreet, that most people probably won't notice.
An absolute blast - recommended .