Rule 34 is a near-future novel about how bad the internet could get after the next generation of spammers and fraudsters have come through. A police detective, an ex-con, and a shady criminal illuminate a tangled plot in a book fizzing with ideas.
Rule 34 is a follow up to Halting State
, but is a loose sequel at best, and you can definitely read it without reading Halting State. What it does do is take the theme Stross started in Halting State - the weird possibilities for crime in the internet age - and take it to the max.
Stross weaves together three main characters, plus some interesting extra eyes to illuminate the story. Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh runs a dead-end police unit specialising in stopping the fallout from the worst and weirdest of criminal memes the internet has to offer. Anwar Hussein is a Asian-Scottish ex-con, previously collared by DI Kavanaugh for some white-collar crimes. In need of a legal job to satisfy probation, he becomes Consul for a dubious Eastern European no-one has ever heard of, mostly because it didn't exist last year. Finally, the Toymaker is a very dubious representative of a faceless criminal group, in Edinburgh to upgrade their business to the latest model.
In previous books Stross has shown he can throw far-future ideas around with verve, or give us sardonically humorous Lovecraftian fantasy, but Rule 34 fizzes with ideas that resonate with the contemporary world. He gives us an Edinburgh policed by gritty old-school cops using data-mining, VR CopSpace glasses, and wikis, while riding Segways to crime scenes to save money. The internet the criminals use is the cesspit of nonsense and filth we know and love today, just more so.
What Stross shows us is that crimes of the future won't be committed by black-clad hacker-heroes in cyberspace, but will just be weirder, wilder, grimier versions of the back-street deal, the spam email, and the cheap knock-off, all perpetrated by a mix of local lowlifes meeting in the pub and botnet-owning spammers. Throughout, Stross throws away more ideas as casual asides than some authors can get into entire books.
Rule 34 hides some real humour in its cutting observations of what today's world might evolve into far too soon. The main characters are engaging: Kavanaugh is world-weary but forcing herself to believe she can do some good. Anwar is a man struggling with contradictions while trying to do the best he can, and I genuinely cared for his plight, although I think he needed a little more development. The Toymaker is a cypher, and his backstory didn't really grab me, but he does the job of unpleasant criminal co-ordinator well.
The overall plot (which I'll avoid spoilers for) is a twisting timorous beastie, with murders, spam and messed-up relationships creating a nicely confusing tangle before coming to a strong conclusion. A lot of the content and language is distinctly mature - Stross has really pulled out the stops on this one.
I wasn't expecting to give this five stars, but the book gave me no choice but to read it and not stop. This is what happens when Stross applies the cleverness of the Laundry series to the exploding ideas factory of his brain, producing speculative fiction of the highest order, that happens to be totally entertaining at the same time.