Bookmarks Issue: 

A-Rule-34Over the last decade, Charles Stross, along with Alastair Reynolds, Ian McDonald, and Richard Morgan, has become a voice for a new generation of science fiction writers based in the United Kingdom. Stross's novels and short fiction collections include The Atrocity Archives (2004), Singularity Sky (2003), Accelerando (2005), Saturn's Children (3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2008), and Wireless: The Essential Charles Stross (2009). Rule 34, a follow-up to Halting State (4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2008), provides a glimpse at the fragile and often dangerous boundary between the virtual world and our daily lives.

The Story: Rule 34: "If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions." In a grimy near-future, Edinburgh detective inspector Liz Kavanaugh and her unit--"a dumping ground for the weird ones"--investigate memes that jump from the Web to the "real" world. Called to a particularly gruesome death, Kavanaugh begins to uncover a much larger--and deeply strange--conspiracy involving Internet scammers and the consequences of technology (much of it pretty darn cool) that can identify and satisfy users' darkest desires while turning them into something less than human. And none of them have any idea who's really pulling the strings.
Ace. 368 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780441020348

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars"Charles Stross writes hard SF, paranormal espionage and near-future techno-thrillers with equal facility and intelligence, and this novel, a sequel to 2007's Halting State, falls into the last category. ... Writing in the second-person present tense, Stross skilfully and accessibly demonstrates how reality is affected by virtual technology, and how life in Europe could soon change as a result." Eric Brown

NPR 4 of 5 Stars"Stross belongs to that subcategory of science fiction writers who actually know a hell of a lot about how computers work. This technological authenticity adds an extra edge of gritty reality to Stross' already thoroughly hard-boiled story about a detective in near-future Edinburgh who stumbles onto a series of linked murders." Lev Grossman

AV Club 3.5 of 5 Stars"The near-future setting and focus on technological changes makes it tempting to call Rule 34 a cyberpunk novel, but unlike most in the genre, it focuses on the effects of technology on ordinary people, instead of the hackers who create it. ... What initially seems like a fascinating but too-clever experiment quickly becomes normal and even useful for understanding characters who, in some cases, readers might not want to understand." Rowan Kaiser

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars"For some reason, Stross tells this story in the second person, rotating through different characters, including a rather pathetic ex-con hacker and a sociopathic businessman with a seriously creepy briefcase. That choice, along with the book's screeching halt of an ending, disappoints, but there's a lot of fun stuff along the way, like self-driving cars, eyeglasses that provide a constant news and information feed, and a neat bit of public transit tech: If you're really in a hurry, you can bid electronically to have a bus detour to your destination." Sara Sklaroff 2.5 of 5 Stars"While his writing is never less than interesting, there are too many sections of the story where Stross is simply moving the pieces around the board to get to the next staged scene. ... Stross has once again defied common practice and written this book in second person." Nigel Seel

Strange Horizons 2 of 5 Stars"The conclusion itself I found unsatisfactory, which along with the difficulties of reading a second-person narrative meant that Rule 34 was not overall an enjoyable reading experience. My general lack of interest in the characters themselves, at least partly resulting from their apparent lack of volition, undoubtedly compounded my disinterest." Alexandra Pierce

Critical Summary

Charles Stross's novels always balance plot and setting; in that sense, he hits the mark in Rule 34, bringing to life a dystopian near-future worthy of China Mieville and Philip K. Dick and throwing in enough gee whiz technology to keep things interesting. Easily the distinguishing characteristic of Stross's novel, though, is the risky narration: told in the second person (like Halting State), the story draws readers in (or, as some critics complain, alienates them) by allowing readers to become the characters: "It's a slow Tuesday afternoon, and you're coming to the end of your shift," you read at the outset. Depending on your perspective, you might enjoy that point of view. In lesser hands, it can become a dodgy ploy. But in Charles Stross's hands, it works so well you should jump right in.