RULE 34 by Charles Stross (2012, Ace)
It’s not often enough I get to read a book which literally blows me away. Rule 34 is such a novel: original, entertaining, futuristic, amok, but optimistic enough to keep the reader involved. There’s an assortment of characters, all of who are interesting enough for the story to flow. It’s already had a number of good reviews. I’m now motivated to read more books from the author.
Scotland: the near future (10-20 years). Another Great Recession has left the world spinning. Most of Europe has devolved into smaller states, although cooperation still exists. The United Kingdom has broken into it’s former principalities with Scotland an independent nation. Pollution control laws and the price of gas has forced most people to return to public transportation as the prime means of getting around. Even police officers are forced to use Segways for small trips. But most vehicles are automatically driven, which makes for safer streets. 3D printers can take care of small part needs, but home fabricators are heavily restricted due to the anti-piracy laws and their potential for weapons manufacture. Most people are happy to work and just get by.
The title referes to an urban legend: “Rule 34: If you can imagine something, there will be a porn version.” Rule 34 is also a sequel to Stross’ 2008 novel, The Halting State.
Rule 34 is original because most of it is written in the second person singular tense. A typical sentence might start out “You walk down the stairs…”. In most cases, I’ve never liked second person fiction as it assumes to much about the reader. But Stross makes it fresh by breaking the story up into a variety of characters. He’s also able to write whole passages effectively in Scottish dialect, not an easy feat. It’s a little difficult to follow, but easily picked up.
The book begins with a murder investigation. Edinburgh Police Inspector Lisa Kavanaugh is called in to help solve a gruesome death involving an Internet spam king and his antique enema machine. Kavanaugh has seen much worse since she runs an Internet monitoring division of the police department. Her group tries to prevent copycat crimes from going out of control.
During the investigation, a mysterious character known as “The Toymaker” drops in accidentally. He wanted to recruit the victim as a representative for the crime syndicate who employs him, but had no idea he was waltzing into a murder scene. Noted by the police as a mere acquaintance of the victim, he’s forced to sneak away and go to a fall-back plan.
Another major character is Anwar Hussein, a second generation immigrant from Pakistan. He’s just got released from the slammer for identity theft and needs a job. Although he’s doing IT work for his cousin’s website, he also gets little assignments from an underworld figure known as “The Gnome”. The Gnome has just discovered there’s an honorary consul position open for a breakaway Asian republic and Anwar fits the bill. Soon Anwar finds himself in an office complex, bored, wondering what was the real reason he got the job. And then someone from the republic shows up with “samples” of a bread mix he’s supposed to distribute to anyone asking….
The police in this novel have a lot more resources at their disposal than the ones at present. Officers patrol with glasses to show them “CopSpace” and remote drones patrol the sky looking for vandals and littering. But criminal science has reached it’s maturity with the police constantly being evaluated and actual murders quite rare. Any Person Of Interest can petition to have their DNA removed from the police database.
So when spammers start turning up dead, all over the world, law enforcement starts wondering who, what and why. To say more would ruin the book. And the Toymaker is carrying around a sample case, the contents of which are not revealed till the end of the book. When you do find out what’s in it, you wish you hadn’t.
And excellent novel, perhaps the best science fiction work of 2011. I’m looking forward to the next one in the series.