Rule 34
Charles Stross
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Buy *Rule 34* by Charles Stross

Rule 34
Charles Stross
368 pages
July 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Not that anyone should care, but someone is killing the great spammers of Europe. They’re dying spectacular deaths, all in a manner that might look to an untrained eye like household accidents - if your household has equipment to shrink-wrap you to a mattress stuffed with money, for instance. Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh (of the Edinburg Police) finds herself in the middle of this mess, perhaps since the crooked arc of her cop career – homicide to Internet-fringe crime – seems a perfect match. Liz isn’t happy…

The man who calls himself the Toymaker isn’t happy, either: not one, but two of the people he’s in Edinburg to “interview” for his new business venture have turned up messily dead. It’s beginning to look like a trend. Then there’s Anwar, whose new job as the Counsel for Issyk-Kulistan (a sock-puppet state carved out of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or some other –stan) is turning out to be pretty boring except for the occasional visit from people asking for one of his bags of “Organic Bread Mix #4.” Yet spammers and other Internet creepy-crawlies – like identity thieves and kiddie-porn fans – continue to croak, each dead at the “hands” of a household appliance.

That’s when Liz and company meet with Dr. Adam MacDonald, one of the double-dome CompSci AI researchers responsible for the ATHENA program. Suddenly, the pieces begin to fall in place – and what a puzzle-picture they make.

Once upon a time, some wag made up Internet rule #34: “If it exists, there’s a porn version of it.” Charlie Stross is a believer, as his latest novel, Rule 34, proves. Like 2007’s Halting State, Rule 34 is set in an independent Scotland in the near future (2023, to be precise). Though none of the characters from the previous novel appear in Rule 34, the cyber-landscape is much the same (except that everybody is using pads now instead of netbooks), featuring eyeglasses with heads-up displays to tell Kavanagh and her mates what’s going on in CopSpace, complete with hyperlinks to any criminal reports or records of whatever crosses the wearer’s field of view.

The Scottish setting and resulting dialect of many of the characters let Stross separate fans from posers, as wading through the first few chapters (especially without a glossary!) will require plenty of dedication. Add the novel’s unusual point of view – like Halting State, it’s written mainly in second person – and those easily upset that their novel isn’t light reading will run screaming for the nearest vamp-rom fiction.

That’s too bad, however, because Stross is in good form in Rule 34, concocting a plot that requires all of the reader’s attention. Plus when he’s not tossing in random homage to sci-fi classics (mentioning the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner, for instance), he’s tweaking the self-important nose of plenty of this new decade’s faddish types. Most gratifying for those readers who can overlook a little literary discomfort to push through to the end is a gut-wrenching plot twist. It’s pure Charlie Stross, one of the generation’s finest and most visionary science fiction writers – and it’s gonna scare you to death.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Rex Allen, 2011

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