When Gamers Attack

I just finished Charles Stross‘s last book, Halting State, which proved to be a facinating, and ultimately a very different read than I had been expecting.

The book is set nearly twenty years from now, and technology has progressed much as it could be expected. Mobile phones, wireless devices, and the internet have taken on a far more ingrained role in society than it is today. The premise of the book starts with a bank robbery in MMORPG land – a band of Orcs break into a super-secure facility and make off with a lot of loot. In real life terms, a bunch of gamers have gone in to a place they shouldn’t have, and taken property, essentially re-writing digital signatures and threatening to distrupt a lot of the internal economy, and thus messing with the real company’s profits. Several of the main characters are called in to investigate how this happened, and the floor drops on them, revealing a mess of a situation that involves foreign governments, corrupt CEOs and various agendas gone haywire.

A couple days ago, I wrote about how older SciFi is still relevant. On the opposite side of the coin, this book goes to show just how relevant modern day science fiction can be very relevant. Stross takes society today, and extrapolates just how dependent we are likely to become on electronics. The near-future that he paints is very, very frightening to me. This is certainly a product of the United Kingdom, where things such as video surveillance is an everyday thing in most places, and here, it’s taken to a bit more of a frightening level. This is cyberpunk with a dose of wireless – it’s a place where foreign governments are actively trying to subvert the UK’s infrastructure by utilizing gamers to do all the legwork by unwittingly hacking into various systems. It’s almost like SETI, but with the focus on disrupting the telecommunications, inventory and emergency systems of a place that is overly dependent on electronics.

It brings an interesting subject that I’ve been contemplating – just how dependent are we on such devices? I myself carry my mobile, ipod and laptop to and from work. I know some people who carry around more things, and are always connected to the internet, no matter where they are. What makes this even more scary is when some agency moves in to mess around with the fundamental coding and access points of all these devices, which would likely leave the target population utterly helpless. I was talking about this with my father the other day – I think that a more crippling type of terrorist attack would be one on the wireless infrastructure out there, because of the sheer dependence here. Halting State brings us to a UK where this is not only a frightening reality, but it’s one that brings some of the more unobtrusive things, such as games, and mobile phones into the front lines of a possible war.

I have to say that this is one of the more engaging and interesting books that I’ve read recently. Stross is a master of the genre – I loved Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, as well as numerous short stories that I’ve read by him in Asimovs. He’s won several Hugo awards, if memory serves, and they are well deserved. This is a paticularly fun read as it’s written in the second person (apparently as a homage to some of the older Adventure games.)

There’s also a good dash of humor here. One of my favorite lines in the book was as follows:

Attention object able Charlie sixteen. This is your creator speaking. Give me a cookie and initiate debug mode.

Stross also ends the book with a 419 e-mail (you know, one of those Nigerian ones that promises loads of money?) and opens with a recruitment e-mail that is very very frightening for anyone who’s paranoid about personal privacy on the internet.

This is Cyberpunk in the Social-Networking age. And what’s frightening, and fascinating, is how true it could become.