PROS: Spammers being killed in horrible and imaginative ways, some nifty, close-to-the-coalface extrapolation of near-future trends in networks, police procedures, and a Panopticon society, some fascinating Big Ideas near the end of the novel.
CONS: Generally unlikable and unengaging characters suffering career burnout, a plot that becomes less interesting as the novel progresses, a second-person, present-tense voice that doesn’t work nearly as well as it did in Halting State.
VERDICT: A rare misfire from an otherwise leading writer.
I was inclined to like this novel from the get-go. Charles Stross is on a very short list indeed of the best science fiction writers to start publishing books within the last decade. His Laundry series of geek Cthulhu Mythos spy thrillers (The Atrocity Archive, The Jennifer Morgue and The Fuller Memorandum) are among my personal favorites for the same period. I also enjoyed Halting State, the novel to which Rule 34 is a loose sequel. And Rule 34 has an intriguing premise: a murder investigation of spammers being killed in imaginative, gruesome and compromising ways. (Certainly any veteran of the Spam Wars has had similarly gruesome (if somewhat less elaborate) revenge fantasies…)
Surprisingly, Rule 34 actually ended up being quite a slog to get through. I wasn’t quite halfway through when I felt my interest waning, and eventually put it down and read several other books before picking it up again.
Like Halting State, Rule 34 is told in second-person, present tense from multiple viewpoints. Liz, the lesbian Scottish cop, is the only character that carries over from Halting State. Anwar is the barely-scraping-by gay Islamic ex-con picking up shady-to-illegal computer work on the side who lucks into (he thinks) a position as the Scottish honorary counsel for The Independent Republic of Issyk-Kulistan. The Toymaker (AKA “John Christie”) is the sociopathic agent for a shadowy criminal conspiracy, irked to find that all his choices to head up the Scottish franchise are being killed off in messy, extravagant ways.
Liz was probably the least interesting viewpoint character in Halting State; here she’s probably themost interesting, not because Stross has made her more fascinating, but because everyone else is even less so. I never really felt that Stross got successfully into the headspace of either Anwar or Christie (surely one of the least interesting psychopathic villains of recent vintage). Anwar is more acted-upon than acting, his small-time scams are not particularly interesting, and I never really bought his home life. His wife and his criminal contact the Gnome were OK, but if he ever interacts with his own children, I must have forgotten it. He basically exists to get screwed. Mired in lives of diminished expectations due to mistakes, midlife crises and career burnouts, a miasma of disappointment hangs over almost all of the viewpoint characters (the sociopath being a notable exception). One suspects that the effort necessary in putting out some 20-odd books in less than a decade might have left the author feeling a little crispy around the edges. And Stross actually throws in a few more minor second-person viewpoint characters (like a European cop and Liz’s on-again/off-again girlfriend) which are even less interesting and well-defined, making the entire second-person narrative approach seem much more diffuse and ill-advised than it was in Halting State.
The future Stross has imagined, an admixture of both positive and negative wish fulfillment, also has distinct problems. In negative wish-fulfillment, the Panopticon society depicted here (where your almost every move is filmed and tracked) is moderately convincing. On the other hand, the positive (for Stross) wish-fulfillment aspect of Europe being ascendant over a bankrupt America, and of an independent Scotland adopting the Euro over the Pound, looks even more ridiculous in the wake of the ongoing Euro crises. That’s always a danger when working that close to the coalface, but parts of Rule 34 already feel like alternate history.
There are some interesting skiffy bits in the novel. At lot of the CopSpace systems Liz and cohorts use is both fascinating and plausible, and some 90% of the way through the novel there’s a nifty infodump about self-organizing, autonomous information systems that reveals what the novel is Really About, but it comes too late to lift the general weariness of watching a bunch of frazzled, depressed people scurry around in the conceptual darkness.
This is probably the least engaging of all Stross’ novels (or at least the ones I’ve read; I haven’t gotten to Iron Sunrise or the Merchant Princes books yet), even apart from the pedophile sex robots. (And if you’re not up for at least implied disturbing sexual acts, well, the title should have already warned you away.) I consider this a rare misfire from a top writer, and look forward to reading The Apocalypse Codex (the fourth Laundry novel) next year.
Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Jim Baen’s Universe, and Postscripts, as well as several anthologies. He reviews movies for Locus Online, frequently in collaboration with Howard Waldrop. He’s the once and future editor of Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books. It’s a good life, if you don’t weaken.