Stross: Rule 34

• I reviewed Rule 34 when it was published in 2011 and it has been on my bookshelf ever since, far too good to throw away but challenging enough that I didn’t pick it up for a second reading until last week. Here’s my (old) review, shortened slightly but otherwise unchanged, with a (new) afterword to bring it up to date.

cover of Rule 34Rule 34

Charles Stross

Orbit, 2011

Rule 34 is an internet meme which says, “If it exists, there is porn of it,” and Rule 34 centres on an Edinburgh policewoman whose daily job is dealing with its consequences.

Not that DI Liz Kavanaugh has any hope of stemming the tide of porn sloshing around the web (it’s about ten years into our future and all law enforcement agencies have tacitly abandoned the attempt), but her unit tries to prevent the worst of it from spreading.

On secondment to another unit, she is called to take charge of a murder scene as bizarre as any porn fantasy.  

The victim is “lying foetal on the floor in front of some kind of antique machine the size of a washer/dryer, … connected to the aforementioned plumbing appliance by a sinuous braided-metal pipe … [wearing] black bondage tape around wrists and ankles, suspender belt and fishnets, and a ball gag. … That, and the hose up his arse, tell you all you need to know.” So, yes, there is explicit, unconventional sex in Rule 34, although it turns out not to be central to any of the multiple plot lines.

Charles Stross burst onto the SF scene in 2003 with Singularity Sky and has collected a string of awards for his novels and short fiction since then. Rule 34 is a very loose sequel to his Halting State in which Liz, five years younger, is a minor character.

On the most immediate level it is a police procedural, an investigation of a cluster of peculiar murders. But Rule 34 also deals with a multibillion dollar sting against organised crime, the nexus between internet spam and organised crime (put simply, spam is the only means of widely advertising illegal goods and services) and the evolution of artificial intelligence. More philosophically, it spends some time analysing the standoff between corporate accountability and corporate greed in the wake of Enron and a couple of GFC’s. Juggling all these elements is tricky but the writer brings it off, making the book immensely rewarding to readers willing to pay attention.

Besides Liz Kavanaugh, the central characters are Anwar Hussein and the Toymaker. Liz’s world is policing in the information age. VR specs log her into CopSpace, “an augmented-reality overlay that maps a view of the criminal-intel knowledge base across the world in front of your eyes,” and record everything she sees, hears and says on duty, but little else in her work life would surprise Rebus.

Anwar is a Pakistani Scot, happily enough married but a bad Muslim with his beer habit and furtive gay liaisons. He is a likeable but not very bright white-collar crim who is led into ‘black’ coding for his cousin Tariq’s sleazy dating site and a legal but dodgy job for a highly irregular central Asian republic.

The Toymaker is a fixer for the Operation, an American crime group which despises the yakuza and the mafiya for being old-fashioned, sentimental and inefficient. The Operation recruited him precisely because he is a high-functioning sociopath, able to pass for normal (when on his meds) but delighted by any excuse to harm anyone, anytime. He is in Edinburgh to rebuild the Operation’s local network and it seems to be pure coincidence that his new candidate for manager’s position is dead on the floor (yes, in bondage gear) when the Toymaker calls on him. It begins to seem less coincidental when he finds his second candidate dead on the floor of her flat, shrink-wrapped to a mattress stuffed with bank notes.

Rule 34 replicates the idiosyncratic second-person narration of Halting State, placing the reader in the worlds of its main characters in alternating chapters. It is a technique which can be immersive in the manner of an RPG but risks the opposite effect since it can, equally, be confronting and alienating. Here, for instance, is the Toymaker, recalling an uncharacteristically joyful childhood memory:

When you were eight, your dad taught you the correct way to peel a live frog. … “Look,” said Dad, holding down the slimy, frantically gulping bull-frog, “it’s simple. Just one cut here and–” He demonstrated. A flip of the fingers and inside out it goes. You laughed excitedly as the skinless amphibian flailed away at the bleeding air. “Looks real funny, doesn’t he? Just like a little man. Now you try.” And he handed you a frog and a knife. … So you got to peel frogs one happy summer afternoon with Dad.

Some familiarity with geek-speak is advantageous; ditto Scots dialect. Here’s Jaxxie, one of the minor characters who takes a turn centre-stage: “Ye didnae get to bed in the end; microwave pizza and cheap Polish beer fueled you on an epic raid on Axe Cop 14. … You roll off the soiled sofa, gurning, and stagger out to the lavvie. The keekin-glass shows you an orc with eyes like red-rimmed piss-holes in a block of lard.”

Jaxxie is a high-school dropout manufacturing black-market goods on his hacked ‘fabber’ (3-D printer) from templates downloaded from murky internet sites. He can produce anything from a meth-lab-in-a-brick to x-ray-transparent plastic bullets to animatronic sex toys, so he is both a target of Liz’s police unit and a bottom-level supplier to the Toymaker’s operation.

Rule 34 is brilliant but difficult. The language is demanding, the humour is black and the higher-level concepts are brain-stretching. On the other hand, the good guys win.


So that’s what I thought of it when it appeared. Re-reading the book after eleven years, my biggest surprise was how much more realistic it all seemed – and that’s simultaneously a compliment to Stross’s prescience and cause for concern in real life.

Stross has kept himself very busy writing fantasy, alternate-history SF, space opera, and the Laundry Files series, a weird but very enjoyable mash-up of SF, spy fiction and Lovecraftian horror. Rule 34 seems to have been his last hard SF title, which would count as a disappointment if his other work wasn’t so good. Here’s a list:

One more thought: anyone who likes the sound of Rule 34 but isn’t fixated on SF might well enjoy the work of Chris Brookmyre – similarly Scottish crime and politics laced with gory violence, very black humour and a tendency to preach, pontificate or rant about important social matters. AFAG would be a good starter; it’s a bit lighter than some of the others.

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