At what point does technology go from being a help to being a hindrance—or worse, when does it become truly dangerous? Plenty of stories have asked that question, positing everything from rampant robots to homicidal supercomputers. But Charles Stross has created a threat from something that most of us utilize every day without even realizing it. Rule 34, named for the internet axiom “If it exists, there’s porn of it on the internet”, is both a cautionary tale and an engrossing mystery.
(Description nicked from the front flap of the book.)
“Meet Edinburgh Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh, head of the Innovative Crime Investigation Unit, otherwise known as the Rule 34 Squad. It’s responsible for monitoring the Internet, following trends to determine whether people are engaging in harmless fantasies—or illegal activities. Usually their job uncovers those operating on the extreme fringes of the run-of-the-mill porn that still, in 2023, abounds in cyberspace. But occasionally, more disturbing patterns arise…
Three ex-cons have been murdered, in Germany, Italy and Scotland. The only things they had in common were arrests for spamming—and a taste for unorthodox erotica. As the first officer on the scene of the most recent death, Liz finds herself rapidly sucked into an international investigation that isn’t asking so much who the killer is as what it is—and if she can’t figure that out, a lot more people are going to die as the homicides go viral…”
I find this book, and its predecessor Halting State, to be among the more unusually compelling books on the shelves. One reason for this is their use of second person as a narrative voice. It’s reminiscent of the old text-based computer games—“You go into the house and see a dark hallway”. Although some people may have trouble adjusting to it, as it’s not often used in novels, those who can adapt to the style will find themselves immersed in the story. It’s as though once your brain “clicks” over and accepts the narrative “you”, it’s difficult not to project your feelings into the on-page characters.
This is a help, because there is a lot going on in this book. There are three regular point of view characters, as well as a smattering of others, so readers will get the chance to see the situation from several different angles. Pay close attention, because Stross scatters hints throughout the story that lead to the payoff at the end!
It’s hard to talk about this novel’s plot without giving away key elements. Suffice to say, Stross has crafted a story around a scenario that could conceivably happen in our technology-heavy society, and the issues that he raises are ones that we would do well to consider. There are also issues of privacy that come into play—Liz and the Rule 34 Squad are combing the internet looking for clues that people might be engaged in crimes… or might even be just considering them. The saying goes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but at what point does that segue into “Big Brother”? There are many such issues wrapped up in this novel.
Ultimately, this is a novel that is not only entertaining, but one that makes you think about tough issues in a way that could challenge your comfort zones. And that’s a good thing. Stross doesn’t shy away from the horrors of our plugged-in society, but instead pulls them into the light for a good once-over. Rule 34 combines hard science fiction with Brave New World and comes up with a solid winner.
Also by this author: The Family Trade, Halting State
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on July 28, 2011.