Review of Rule 34 by

Book cover for Rule 34

The Internet isn’t for porn, silly human. The Internet is for spam! It’s an interesting spin on a truism of our times.

We are seeing the first reported smartphone botnet. We are seeing the future. Policing of the future isn’t going to be about Robocop busting drug dealers and car thieves on the street of Detroit. Automated drones might be part of the package, but there will still be boots on the ground—just heavily assisted by highly-networked, algorithm-boosted technology. Policing is no longer about the heart and the gut, and as Liz Kavanaugh explains in Rule 34, the days of the Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Rebus are long gone. Criminals are, as always, leveraging the latest in technology as they develop newer, more lucrative ways to make money.

Rule 34 is a look at, to borrow Charles Stross’ nomenclature, Criminality 2.0: crime for the networked age. Part police procedural, part philosophical rumination on the Singularity bubble, Rule 34 is a heady cocktail of near-future speculation and present-day description of the challenges to law enforcement, national sovereignty, and daily life posed by all those thousands of networked devices clamouring for our attention. It’s set five years after Halting State—but it only involves two of the other book’s minor characters, so feel free to read this without reading the other one. Indeed, I liked Rule 34 better.

Halting State and Rule 34 are both narrated in the second person. This is unusual, to say the least, and I know it frustrates many readers. I didn’t examine it all that much when I reviewed Halting State, except to say that I didn’t notice it after the first few pages. Well I noticed it more in this book, because occasionally Stross would slip into the first person for a chapter or two—and that had to be deliberate. Indeed, the second-person narration has an interesting reason that makes sense by the end of the book, though I don’t want to spoil it. Also, second person is a nice compromise between the objectivity of limited-omniscient third person and the unreliability of first person. It has that same first-person intimacy but comes without the spectre of deception attached.

And I don’t even think that the narrative tense is what makes Rule 34 difficult to read for some. I think it’s the dialect. Not the Scottish dialect, though there is that: the 2020s dialect. It hit me about halfway through the book, and after that everything became easier to read. Stross is writing using the idiom of the time. To explain, consider how we speak today compared with ten, twenty, fifty years ago. How common now is it to talk about tweeting, texting, IMing, Googling, Facebooking, etc.? How used are we to slinging the verbiage of the iPhone, the Android, the 3G and LTE and other abbreviations of our day? Someone from the 1950s, 1970s, or even the 1990s might have a hard time penetrating this obscure dialect. That’s what Stross is doing here: he’s narrating as if to an audience where all this technology, like CopSpace and pads that pull VMs down from the cloud, is normal. It’s part of everyday life, as surely as your coffeemaker or your refridgerator is part of yours. When technology becomes a common tool instead of a fancy new toy, when it becomes commonplace and part of the common conversation, we cease thinking about how weird we might sound to the uninitiated. Stross doesn’t bother infodumping much on us, but instead has us assimilate by exposure.

I like that Stross has created such a neat, self-contained vision of the near future. The idea is not to be accurate, of course, but to look at what this extrapolation says about our present day. How does extending current trends reflect what we are doing now? All authors have their bailiwicks and hang-ups, and Stross in particular loves to write about artificial intelligence. But like any good writer, his relationship with these ideas continues to evolve. He has written in Singularity-addled universes, but now he is looking at futures where the Singularity hasn’t happened and probably will never happen (though in this case, I think it’s far more ambiguous than Dr. MacDonald claims in his lecture to Liz). Rule 34 is definitely about artificial intelligence, but it’s about the understated, what we might consider more rudimentary artificial intelligence that often gets ignored in favour of the more sensational, conscious AIs of blockbuster notoriety. (That being said, I think ATHENA has more in common with SkyNet than it does some of the more human-like, personality-driven AIs we see these days.)

The plot of Rule 34 is convoluted and driven by coincidence—and that’s probably an understatement. There is a reason for all the coincidence that gradually becomes apparent; while that wasn’t quite enough to quash my unease with the serendipity of this story, it was sufficient to sustain my satisfaction overall. Allow me to serve as an example, however, and attest that one does not need the language of derivatives and credit default swaps encoded in one’s genes to enjoy this book. I won’t claim to have followed every twist and turn of the various machinations and counter-machinations at work. But the shifting perspectives and the ongoing investigation help illuminate, if not explain, the goings-on of the story.

I like most of the characters (if “like” is the right word here). I like that Liz is bitter about being passed over for promotion but still professional enough to work with a rival and caring enough to help an ex-girlfriend in trouble. I like that she puts aside her past problems with Kemal so they team up here—Kemal gets a more sympathetic portrayal in this book. Anwar has to be my favourite, just because he’s so hapless at everything he touches. He gets in way over his head and thinks no one will notice, when he turns out to be one of the fulcra around which the plot pivots. To say that I “like” the Toymaker would definitely be inaccurate, but I do like how Stross explores his psychology and motivation: he is more than a villain or a minion, less than a mastermind.

Rule 34 throws up a lot of hurdles that could reduce one’s enjoyment: second-person narration, idiomatic diction, and complicated plot. These challenges are also the source of its success. It’s a book, I guess, where its flaws (such as they may be perceived) are also strengths, given the right type of reader—proof, again, that literature is eternally subjective because humans are so diverse. If you’re interested in looking at what we might have made of society, policing, and the Web in ten years—as opposed to the ten thousand of some books about AI—then give Rule 34 a try.

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