Rule 34, Charles Stross

Ace, 2011, 358 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-02034-8

Every new Charles Stross novel is an event in the world of Science Fiction, and rarely more so than when he turns his attention to near-future speculation.  As is obvious to anyone reading his blog, Stross is a pretty good techno-social pundit, and his willingness to play around with big concepts advantages him when he tackles near-future scenarios.  In Halting State, he imagined a wild conceptual rollercoaster where crime and technology intersected in late-2010s Scotland.  Now, with Rule 34, he revisits the same notional playground and dares ask what’s the future of deviance at a time where ideas spread nearly instantly, and where no idea is so outlandish that it can’t be shared by a group of like-minded people.

The “Rule 34” of the title is familiar to anyone who’s spent time on internet discussion forums: “If it exists, there is porn of it”, which I have always interpreted to be not a warning or a promise, but an acknowledgement that humans, especially as a group, are an imaginative species when it comes to their base desires.  Stross’ application of the concept is to imagine a team of police officers monitoring the internet to catch wind of new dangerous ideas before they have to deal with them on their own turf.  After all, If the newest craze spreading through internet hoodlums is llama-stomping, it far better for the police to be prepared than caught surprised.  (Right on cue as I edit this review, Ottawa feels its first “flash rob”.)

But there’s a lot more to Rule 34 than police using web browsers: It’s an excuse for Stross to start thinking about the near-future of crime and law-enforcement.  Much as Halting State thought about the intersection of crime, games and national security, this follow-up has a bit to say about what happens when crime is run along business principles, when police work becomes enmeshed into the cultural matrix and what the future of “perversion” can be.  (I’m overselling this by talking about “the future of perversion”, but none of the three main characters is traditionally heteronormative, and the deviance to be contained has more to do with consent that sexual orientation.  This, to Stross fans, will be strictly routine.)  As with Halting State, Rule 34 feels stuffed with neat ideas that will pop up elsewhere in the Science Fiction genre within a few years: Stross is, as usual, five minutes ahead of everyone else, and this novel does little to tarnish his current credentials as SF’s essential writer.

But if techno-social extrapolation is Stross’ best-known virtue, Rule 34 shows that he’s constantly underrated when it comes to style.  Like its predecessor, Rule 34 is written in present-tense second-person point-of-view.  The rationale for doing this isn’t as strong as in Halting State (where it could be interpreted as a take-off on the narrative voice of game tutorials), but it does lead to a crunchy game of “Who is narrating this?” toward the end of the volume as the mysteries of the plot are teasingly brought closer.  This time, Stross seems to be having a bit of fun in the narration, and never quite as much as when a particularly spirited piece of writing explains the new shape of the world in a preposterously entertaining fashion.  It used to be that you could rely upon the SF writers with the best ideas to be only marginally competent in writing prose.  Rule 34 shows that Stross is able to combine the ideas with vastly entertaining writing.  It’s still mind you, aimed straight at the techno-nerd segment able to process multiple simultaneous streams of information (chunks of the novel are best appreciated if you can get all of the references to web memes, recent political/criminal/financial history, or simply the info-SF mindset.) but it still, at times, approaches a bravura performance: As he slowly enters his second decade of professional publishing, Stross is getting better and better at delivering the kind of satisfying SF reading experience that genre readers are asking for.  It’s also, in the typical Strossian tradition, both very funny and very scary at once.

A first-rate SF novel, cutting-edge even by 2011’s most rigorous standards, Rule 34 is about as good as the genre can be at the moment, avoiding the prevailing doom-and-gloom atmosphere while presenting a challenging view of the near future.  It’s exhilarating, satisfying and entertaining at once, and it seems likely to rocket up the list of the Hugo Award nominations next year.

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