Halting State was published in 2007, after being written in 2005-06, but had a very long germination. Very long. As in, the first seeds of the book go back to 1998 — and it changed out of all recognition along the way ...
It was going to be about vampires.
And before that, it was going to be non-fiction.
Lest you go WTF?!? on me, let me explain: in 1998, I'd almost given up on fiction. I was writing and selling the odd short story, and shopping around a novel titled "Festival of Fools" (later, "Singularity Sky"). Most of my writing effort was focussed on the newsstand computer press; around 1998 I acquired the monthly Linux column in "Computer Shopper" (the British mag published by Felix Dennis, not the Ziff-Davis title he allegedly got the idea from). I had pretty much despaired of ever getting a novel published, but I did have a non-fiction book to my name ("The Web Architect's Handbook") and another non-fiction contract outstanding.
And I was working as programmer for a dot-com startup, Datacash Ltd (which, just now, is the subject of a takeover offer by Mastercard, which tells you it was one of the few dot-com 1.0 start-ups to actually survive and prosper).
Well, it didn't look likely in 1998-99 that I was going to make my fortune (things were a little, ahem, fraught), but I did have a buttload of ideas for a book about the dot-com boom, as seen from inside. These I gathered together into a pitch titled "Take the Money and Run", which was going to be "The Soul of a New Machine" for the dot-com era.
Here's how the detailed proposal began:
hematically, the history of Datacash is a journey — from the prehistory of e-commerce, through to market floatation on AIM. Along the way we run into assorted businesses, old (acquiring banks) and new (dot-coms). We also meet a clash of personalities — the Suits and the Geeks — and a clash of business models — traditional British corporatism and radical Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism. There's also a clash of technologies,
from the antiquated APACS protocols and mainframe-bound procedures of the banks, to the internet protocols and open source mentality of DataCash. DataCash is a weird hybrid, prone to tensions running along these axes, and this needs to be brought out.
This book isn't going to try to present a formula for becoming an internet zillionaire, because there isn't one, and by the time the process looks stable enough to formalise the industry will have matured enough to make it impossible. (Besides, I don't have an MBA and I don't look good in a suit. So there.)
What this book is going to do is paint a picture of an accidental journey. When we got started, I was so confident of failure that I insisted on working as a contractor rather than an employee/shareholder. Even Gavin, CEO and main stakeholder, only anticipated a 12-month window of opportunity and a peak value of maybe a million. How we got from there to here isn't easy to understand without some knowledge of: ...
In 1999 I was talking to a literary agent (not my current agent) about this idea; he got cold feet after a few months and wished me good luck elsewhere. Meanwhile, things were turning sour, and by early 2000 the dot-com bubble was a bust, I was working full-time as a freelance computer journalist, and "Take the Money and Run 1.0" was history.
When fate hands you a bunch of lemons, you make lemonade. And so I got the idea of using my experience to write a novel, not a boring corporate biography. Iteration #1 of the fiction version of "Take the Money and Run" featured, well, skull-duggery inside a dot-com. Which would have been great, except nobody in 2001-02 wanted to read a historical murder mystery set, er, three years ago.
By this time I'd sold "Singularity Sky" and "The Atrocity Archive", and was working on the first Merchant Princes books. But the idea of using Datacash (or something like it) as a setting haunted me. So did a certain imp of the perverse. My muse likes to mess me around and have me run variations on old, classic themes of genre fiction. One of the more bizarre experiences of working in the dot-com sector was running into against Venture Capitalists — not just at Datacash but subsequently (I was involved in an abortive attempt to bootstrap a new startup: abortive, because we made our first pitch for funding on September 12th, 2001). The effect of VCs on a successful company as it nears the market can be quite strange — money makes people do weird things. And the VCs are largely unseen by the ground-level staff: they're faceless, distant influences who seem to sap your energy and warp your workplace to their needs. So what better way to really put the V into VC than to write a vampire novel set in a start-up ...?
Here's the proposal I pitched at my agent:
This is a general concept, not an outline. The idea's to combine two ideas — my earlier idea for a mainstream/crime novel set in a failing dot-com, with a wholly new twist on the idea of the vampire in fiction. It's not a standard vampire novel, nor a Laundry novel, but hopefully twitches the same funny/horrifying nexus as "The Atrocity Archives".Note: in that final paragraph you'll see the first hints at the characters of Jack and Elaine in the final published book.
Our starting point is that vampires exist. They're not very supernatural: all the stuff about holy water and mirrors is so much superstition. But this much we know: they're effectively immortal, they're much stronger than mere humans, and they're very, very hungry. They drink blood and eat flesh. Daylight burns their skin, and prolonged exposure gives them severe (but survivable) tumours, so they tend to stay out of it. They're obligate carnivores in human skin, living among the human herd (much as in Suzy McKee Charnas' VAMPIRE TAPESTRY). It may be that vampirism is the effect of contracting a rare viral infection; if so, it has neurological side-effects.
Vampires can live on raw meat and no bits of human. But they have a tendency to succumb to a berserk hunger, and this is increasingly likely to manifest itself the longer they stay on the Atkins diet. Humans just plain smell like food to them, and the longer a vampire holds off the hunger the worse the consequences.
Some vampires can sublimate their hunger into a thirst for material wealth. Rolling in a bathtub full of money helps stave off the urge to rip out throats and drink blood. When this happens, the result isn't pretty — have you ever wondered what motivates the most ruthless of corporate raiders? Most of them are human, but a tiny fraction of the most hungry capitalists are vampires, hoarding the only acceptable substitute for flesh and blood that works. (Besides which, being richer than Croesus is good insulation if the forces of law and order start looking for serial killers in high places.)
Most vampires die young, but if they're intelligent and quick-witted they're effectively immortal — certainly by human standards. However, being a vampire isn't easy. Vampires are interstitial creatures who live in the cracks in the walls of the human societies upon which they prey. They can't afford to be exposed; exposure means death.
Thus, experienced older vampires live like spies or terrorists, with a chain of safe houses and hidden investment caches and always a get-out plan in case someone stumbles across their chain of corpses and starts to seek them. They may not own the investment caches directly — they may use human proxies, Renfields, to operate them — but they'll be readily available and designed to withstand the corrosive effects of change and time.
Over time it has become harder to remain anonymous in our highly networked society. To survive, a vampire needs to become a stainless steel vampire, to work with the tech.
Fifty to a hundred years ago a wave of major extinction killed off 90% of the elder vampires. They simply lacked the flexibility to adapt to the changes brought by the 20th century, and one thing or another got them. (Imagine making the mistake of retreating to the dreaming spires of your youth — back in the 16th century — only to get caught in the firebombing of Dresden.) Some ancients survived — those who are most flexible suffer from a rolling amnesia which blots out most memories more than 50-100 years old, allowing them to keep up with the times. But most are gone forever, leaving only their fossilized hoards behind. The rate at which new cases of vampirism occur is very low, far lower than folklore would suggest.
Because of the great extinction, there is a good living to be made for a freelance forensic accountant with an eye for two-century-old bearer bonds, rusty keys, and treasure maps. Just as long as they don't stumble across a hoard belonging to a vampire who didn't succumb during the great extinction, of course. If the Snark doesn't turn out to be a Boojum, the accountant may very well wind up dead. It's not a risk-free occupation ...
Some hoard-hunters do it as a hobby, while they have a day job. Others do it professionally: the Inland Revenue's crack Vampire Team, for example, with their million candlepower torches and armed Special Branch escorts with carbines firing wooden bullets. But slowly but surely, the caches of hidden treasure are being exhausted. Money is no longer a static thing, but liquid, fungible, tied up in information exchange.
Remember those semi-amnesic Great Vampires who roll with the times? They're not total amnesiacs; the most important wisdom of the ages sticks with them. The madness of crowds, for example, is the easiest way to fleece a herd of human sheep. They're sensitive to patterns of human behaviour that no short-lived mayfly human can sense, except in the abstract; this gives them a huge edge. And they have an unearthly ability to make people believe things, however improbable they might sound at face value. A vampire prince makes a great marketing huckster, a brilliant visionary executive. An angel investor.
... At which point I need to splice in the proposed plot for the crime novel, with a few added twists: in a nutshell, our dot-com is a cash cow for a vampire who is feathering his nest-egg. Our vanishing hacker tried to rip the vampire off, and has been disappeared for his pains. Our investigators-who-don't-trust-each-other, the classic ill-assorted pair, slowly realise that they could re-create the crime — but who killed the original criminal? And why? Cue the slow build-up of tension as they discover that they're not up against an ordinary fraudster, or indeed an ordinary murderer, but something much darker and smellier.
I'm not sure just why my agent took agin' the vampire theme, but remember: this was circa 2002-03. The urban fantasy boom was in full flood and we both thought it was going to prove to be a bubble and burst, sooner rather than later. Either way, she talked me out of it, and I went back to a straight computer-crime novel pitch, albeit now with actual protagonists.
Here's the 2003-04 pitch:
He's a cynical, divorced dot-com programmer with a soft spot for cats. She's a quiet, mousy attack auditor who works out with a broadsword. Together, They Fight Crime.My positioning for this proposal was that it would be my breakout novel into crime — specifically, into high-tech crime fiction, doing something that nobody else was actually doing at the time.
"Take the Money and Run" is a novel of crime, computers, murder and mayhem set in Edinburgh during the frenetic peak of the dot-com boom in 1999-2000. A perfect crime has been committed, the venture capitalists grooming NetCredit for a stock market flotation have gone into emergency damage control mode, and external security auditor Elaine Barnaby is called in to find out how the senior programmer at the company managed to steal ten million pounds and vanish without leaving a trace — and make sure it can't happen again. Erratic but insightful contract programmer Jack Reed is hired as a specialist to help her understand the guts of the dot com's business systems.
Elaine and Jack slowly realise that all the mechanisms are in place to repeat the crime — and the people who know about it are beginning to disappear, one by one. Are they going to be next? Are they going to find out where the mysterious but brilliant Barry Fink went? Or is one of them going to give in to the temptation to take the money and run?
The problem (I think this is what my agent pointed out at the time) was that I have no track record in crime. And, really, it's not a crime novel unless there's something nasty and violent going on. Computer crime is arid, nose-bleedingly high concept, and not entirely captivating to the mass market unless you can hang some kind of personal jeopardy on it. And doing it as a literary novel of character ... given my track record circa 2004, that might be seen as somewhat risky.
So "Take the Money and Run" went on the back-burner for another year, until ...
In early 2005 I began getting an itchy, strange feeling: a tingling in my sense-of-wonder gland. Early 2005 was around the time World of Warcraft was really beginning to pick up mindshare as it surged past its millionth user. Early 2005 was around the time I began to see essays on the net enquiring as to the value of the virtual economies in the leading MMOs. Early 2005 was the year when I heard about a man who, walking into a South London police station, asked to file a crime report: he'd been sold a magic sword on ebay, and it turned out not to be enchanted. (After an hour or so the terminally perplexed desk sergeant finally worked out what was going on and wrote it up as fraud: deceptive sale of an item that was not what it purported to be.) I realized or heard somewhere and recognized to be true the fact that these games, the massively multiplayer ones, were the first truly consumer-oriented virtual realities, and they were taking off like the world wide web ten years earlier.
Like the world wide web, ten years earlier!
I knew what it was like to work in a tech company in a bubble, and I'd worked shoulder-to-shoulder with games programmers, and I'd seen the VCs at work, and I'd got the characters, and I'd got the plot, and now I finally had a McGuffin that would enable me to write that damn' dot-com novel, by shunting everything a decade into the future and focussing on the second-order economic effects of widespread adoption of VR.
And here's the original "Halting State" pitch that evolved from "Take the Money and Run" (you'll see I even left the old title in place at one point):
Working title: HALTING STATEIn the end it took 15 months (largely due to the second person thing: "you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike"), and the plot diverged significantly from this original pitch. It's success was also anything but assured. One of my publishers made a very conservative offer for the book (straight to paperback on a small advance), which my agent and I agreed to pass on at the time; the other publisher made a reasonable offer but make it conditional on me agreeing to write two books, one of which would be a (bankable) space opera (to cover their loss if "Halting State" bombed).
by Charles Stross
He's a reclusive, unfit programmer who knits and plays role playing games. She's a quiet, mousy attack auditor who works out with a broadsword. Together, They Fight Crime.
"Take the Money and Run" is a near-future SF crime thriller set in Scotland circa 2012, during the frenetic peak of a very strange virtual economic boom that echoes the dot-com boom in 1999-2000. Hayek Associates are a postmodern company, economic gurus or "quants" who provide consultancy services for the companies who run MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games). By 2012, MMORPGs are bigger than Hollywood. With tens of millions of customers worldwide paying hundreds of euros a year, these games are big business — and competition between game vendors is cut-throat. to keep the players happy enough that they don't emigrate to the competitors, the economy within the game universe has to be kept stable. Hayek Associates design and implement the economies inside fantasy roleplaying games, and run their central banks. Since their start-up back in the mid-noughties, HA have grown to the point where they're responsible for stabilizing the universe of Warcraft Two, with over fifty million users spending over five hundred million dollars a year on the game; they're about to become the first company in their field to make an initial public offering on AIM (the London equivalent of NASDAQ). But there's been a robbery, and the central bank has been taken for sixty million — that's Gold Pieces, not Euros — and their lead programmer has gone missing.
A perfect crime has been committed, and the venture capitalists backing Hayek Associates' IPO have gone into emergency damage control mode. External security auditor Elaine Barnaby is called in to look at the games' internal economic framework, find out what happened, and to work out how senior programmer Richard "Reliable" McDonald managed to steal ten million pounds (laundered as hot vorpal blades on eBay!) and vanish without leaving a trace — and to make sure it can't happen again. Meanwhile, erratic but occasionally insightful contract programmer Jack Reed is hired to help her understand not only the differences between a real bank and one guarded by dragons and sorcerers, but the similarities.
Elaine and Jack slowly realize that all the mechanisms are in place to repeat the crime — and the people who know about it are beginning to disappear, one by one. It seems that virtual money inside a game can be worth real money on the outside — enough to kill for. Are they going to be next? Are they going to find out where Richard Reliable went? Or is one of them going to give in to the temptation to take the money and run?
It's hard to describe the feel of an unwritten book, but an important point to note is that we're already living in the future William Gibson described in Neuromancer. As he said more recently, "the future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed". It would be all too easy to set "Take the Money and Run" as a noir-ish crime thriller set in a cyberspace populated by elves and dragons, and equally easy to make it a straight police procedural. However, the setting has a flavour all of its own: the two novels I'd point to as thematic references are "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson (for the combination of financial and internet wizardry and hip startup feel) and "A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away" by Christopher Brookmyre (Scottish crime best-seller) for the combination of surreal local colour, hard-edged Scottish grit, and the obsession with computer games. This isn't a novel set in a computer game so much as a novel about the industry that creates the games — as it will look in a decade's time, having eaten the husk of Hollywood and grabbed eyeball share away from TV. It's also a near-future SF novel that takes a hard look at the future of entertainment, the meaning of money, and crimes that don't yet exist.
Detailed plotting is currently contingent on research that is under way, including interviews with police computer crime specialists, former executives of dot-com start-ups, and games industry insiders. (In all cases there are specific people I'm already talking to; I have a good idea where the plot is going to go, but first I need to ensure the technical legwork and extrapolation of the industry's progress over the next two generations of MMORPGs is solid.)
In the real world, today, subscribers to MMORPGs pay up to EUR 15/ USD 20 a month for access to their games universe. Today, World of Warcraft has perhaps 3 million subscribers. In 10 years, Warcraft Two or a similar game can expect 10-30 million users, a majority of them Chinese, spending roughly EUR 10/USD 15 per month. This adds up to roughly $150-500M per year in turnover, conservatively, and excluding peripheral costs incurred by gamers. A game on this scale takes 100-300 core programmers 2-5 years to write, and 1000-3000 game administrators to run, with support by 'bots and volunteer GMs.
Despite the huge numbers here, the total population of game players will be relatively static, only large enough to support 3-8 major games at this scale (1-3 cutting-edge new ones, and 1-5 last-generation game worlds that are slowly losing customers but which can be run as cash cows.)
Because of the static market pool, games companies have resorted to releasing "hacking tools" — technically illegal, but deniable — to allow players of competing games to migrate their characters and treasure into the new games. It's economic warfare, and the existence of emigration between games means that games companies are forced to fine-tune their play environment to make the players feel happy. However, a critical flaw in existing MMORPGs (as of 2005) is that game play is inflationary — it keeps introducing new treasures, because when your universe is run as a plot-coupon fantasy quest, it comes to an end if the treasure tap is turned off.
Firms like Hayek Associates are the second generation of economic consultancies to hire "quants", or quantum physicists. In the 1990s, applied physicists whose careers had been abruptly terminated by the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) flooded Wall Street. In the 2000s, the next generation — following developments that have superseded string theory — have no Wall Street jobs to turn to, but the money in the games consultancy field is good and the dress code is less formal.
The background premise at the heart of this novel is that two games companies — or rather, their economic consultants — are conducting a duel for market share in the real world by trying to cripple each others' economy. The stakes are high; the next game generation is a year from launch, and when it ships it will rack up 50-100 million users, with turnover in the gigabuck range. Each of the duelling competitors wants to ensure that their next-gen game grabs the entire market. Richard "Reliable" has been bribed or blackmailed into installing a back door in the central stock market of Warcraft Two, one that permits the manipulation of magic item derivatives. But finding this back door is going to be a hell of a problem for Elaine the auditor (who is used to investigating computer crime inside real banks) and Jack the gamer/programmer (who knows a fourteenth level rogue when he sees one but isn't so hot on shorting commodities). Together they're going to have to go into the murky world inside the computer game (which is a lot weirder than anyone imagines) and journey into the heart of the rival campaign to try to understand how the business model behind the crime works. And then they're going to have to figure out how to get the police to pay attention ...
Assuming they can do so before whoever murdered Richard "Reliable" comes for them, too.
... Because the economy inside a computer game isn't just imaginary. It's a whole new way of mediating demand, and some very dangerous people are looking to Warcraft Two as the pilot program for their revolutionary agenda. After all, once you know how to crash a virtual economy, what's to stop you doing exactly the same thing to a real one?
(Finally, did I mention a romantic sub-plot? No, I didn't, did I? If there is one, I'll let the characters write it themselves: it usually works better that way. What I know at this point is that the character dynamic is a little like Rachel and Martin in "Singularity Sky", but edgier and more stand-offish: they're more likely to dislike one another at first sight.)
"Halting State" is expected to run to 100-120,000 words and can be written within 12 months of commissioning.
This final version of the book got written because I badly wanted to do so — I had a feeling that its time had come — and because I could afford to (I had a parallel contract with Tor for the second three Merchant Princes books; I wasn't going to starve). But it was a close-run thing; my agent was skeptical, one of my editors was skeptical, and if the commissioning editor at my other publisher had not been feeling a little adventurous ...