Thursday, 14 July 2011

Book Review | Rule 34 by Charles Stross

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DI Liz Kavanaugh: You realise policing internet porn is your life and your career went down the pan five years ago. But when a fetishist dies on your watch, the Rule 34 Squad moves from low priority to worryingly high profile.

Anwar: As an ex-con, you'd like to think your identity fraud days are over. Especially as you've landed a legit job (through a shady mate). Although now that you're Consul for a shiny new Eastern European Republic, you've no idea what comes next.

The Toymaker: Your meds are wearing off and people are stalking you through Edinburgh's undergrowth. But that's ok, because as a distraction, you're project manager of a sophisticated criminal operation. But who's killing off potential recruits?

So how do bizarre domestic fatalities, dodgy downloads and a European spamming network fit together? The more DI Kavanaugh learns, the less she wants to find out.


You are approaching the panopticon singularity. Please mind the gap.

It may be that you think your thoughts are your own. Your idea of what constitutes right and wrong, law and order, man and machine -- entirely yours. Your social networks: unique. Your identity: perfectly private, except perhaps to those individuals and entities you care to share yourself with. You have another think coming.

The loosest of loose sequels to the Hugo and Locus award-nominated 2007 novel Halting State, Charles Stross' Rule 34 takes the near-future setting of its impressive predecessor and seeds Edinburgh's streets with such wicked yet winsome filth as to give Warren Ellis a run for his money.

It begins in no uncertain terms, with what seems a malfunction: an antique enema machine which leaves one Michael Blair, "a spammer with a speciality in off-licence medication" (p.12), rather more thoroughly... purged, shall we say, than he may have intended; for when down-on-her-luck Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh arrives at the scene of the crime, he has lain foetal and decomposing in a pool of his own excretions for days.

Immediately Liz senses something about the site is not quite right, and when from far and from wide the body count of cybercriminals-turned-victims begins to mount, her instincts are borne out. It's little wonder. She's good polis, after all -- though her disdain for office politics has had her career five years in the shitter; five years and counting. So it's an uphill battle Liz has on her hands, getting the Edinburgh brass to grasp the fact that her case could be but the first flush of a far larger scheme. Christ, it could be the crime of the century - perhaps it is - and still the management wouldn't give a fig.

Her job is made no easier by Rule 34's other central characters. Just out of the big house and trying to eke out an existence on the straight and narrow, family man Anwar is beside himself when - out of the blue - a friend hooks him up with certain representatives of Issyk-Kulistan, "a shiny new Eastern European Republic" who offer him a handsome salary and all the trimmings if he'll only be their Scottish Consul. Anwar is just desperate enough to agree, yet not so stupid as to miss the implication that this new avenue of employment is a front for something decidedly dodgy. Just what's off about it, though, he hasn't a clue -- except that it involves bread mix.

Meanwhile, "a high-functioning sociopath with an incurable organic personality disorder" (p.248) who Stross christens The Toymaker has come to town to corner the market on living dolls made to order for child molesters. However, he finds his carefully arranged business plan thwarted at every turn; where he expects to meet business associates, there are only bodies, all flesh and blood and broken bone. Probably the lizards did it, reasons the creep. The lizard, or the rape machines...

Far and away the most distinctive thing about this short novel is that it's told entirely in the second-person perspective. And not just from one such perspective: three - and three more if you count the interludes in addition to Liz, Anwar and The Toymaker. Needless to say, the second-person is a rare choice in fiction, and I imagine it will prove a touch too much for some Rule 34 readers - counter-intuitively it can on occasion work to distance one from the subject rather than draw one in - but with ten solid novels behind him, and better versed than most in this unusual voice thanks to Halting State, which Rule 34 very much recalls, it would be wise of you, I think, to trust in the antipope Charles Stross.

I did -- and it was an ask for the first while, I'll admit. But within an hour of starting in on Rule 34 I'd adjusted easily enough, and thereafter, thrumming through the white noise of botnets and lifelogging and augmented reality which at the outset threatens to overburden the surface of Stross' latest, I could just about pick out this book's pulse. And when I'd heard it, I couldn't - wouldn't - unhear it.

Rule 34 is at its core a novel about who we are, with a tremendously provocative concept at its core. Its narrative is primarily concerned with questions of identity sprung from the science of cognitive psychology and the fiction of future tech (or wherever the twain might meet), which Stross posits will quite paralyse the human animal, leaving us unable to cope with the myriad demands of morality and reality. When for instance the police need bleeding-edge AR overlays to keep track of the 300,000-odd actionable offences they might arrest an individual over, how can we mere mortals be expected to live by the book?

Rule 34 suggests that where in this sense man must end, having finally met his match, the machine might very well begin; instituting what Stross calls choice architecture, which is to say "the science of designing situations to nudge people towards a desired preference." (p. 285) In short, if we are our choices, and our choices are no longer our own, then who are we, exactly? And what in the great Goog's name are we good for?

I keep saying we, but Rule 34 isn't a book about us, so to speak. It's about you - yes, you - and therein lies its greatest strength, as well as its foremost weakness. Stross implicates each and every reader in this nightmare vision of the near future, and in the ghastly crimes which may or may not herald the arrival of the end times. We are only the hunter in these pages insofar as we are also his prey, and if Rule 34 is sometimes difficult to parse when it casts us in such opposing roles... well. I dare say that might just be the point.

Gripping, prescient and deeply relevant, fast and sharp and smart as they come, Rule 34 is a powerful showcase for one of the utmost masters of predictive SF: a document of an author approaching career-best form. If you can get to grips with Stross' use of the second-person - and some may not - you'll remember Rule 34 for a long time to come. That is until the machines volunteer to remember it for you... wholesale.


Rule 34
by Charles Stross

UK Publication: July 2011, Orbit
US Publication: July 2011, Ace

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  1. In Halting State, I was amazed to find just how immersive second person was, and how little adjusting to it I needed.

    I've not read much of his work, but what I have read of Stross very much impresses. Plus, if you'll allow me a moment of nationalism, it's great to see a book set in places I recognise. As a fan of fantasy and sci-fi, Edinburgh isn't a place that crops up often. Or, well, ever. This looks likely to be added to the ever approaching infite entity that is my to-read list.

  2. Let me join you in your moment of nationalism, Ty-Real!

    I'd echo your sentiment exactly, mate. It was a rare but bona fide pleasure to see an Edinburgh I actually recognise (and Stross doesn't change it all that much) given new life in print. An added treat when you consider everything else Rule 34 has going for it, but hell, being The Speculative Scotsman and all, I really should have thought to mention that in the review...

    Some Scotsman I am! :)

  3. Niall- I've heard these books are sort of sci-fi police procedurals, is that a fair assessment?

  4. Pretty much, I guess. But more like The Killing, for instance, than a Law and Order - we see both sides in Rule 34: good and bad, naughty and nice. Hell, we are both sides in Rule 34.

    Did I mention it's good stuff?

  5. Thanks Niall. Your review definitely made me want to check out Rule 34, but I'll start at the beginning with Halting State. Cheers!