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4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 5 July 2011
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.
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"Rule 34" is a kind-of sequel to Stross's earlier Halting State - that is, it's set in the same future, and features some of the same characters (including DI Liz Kavanaugh, who plays a more central role here than in the other book). The most striking similarity is that the book is all (apart from a bit at the the end) done in the second person ("You wake up and realise that you're late for work. Hurrying, you get dressed...") There is a reason for this in the story. It is different from that in "Halting State", which is set in the world of computer games, where second person comes naturally ("as you walk along the dark corridor, you see a glowing shape...") and when it is revealed, a lot suddenly makes sense.

I was slightly ambivalent about the second person stuff at first because in "Halting State" it took me a little while to adjust to. Here, though, it works well from the start. I don't know if this is because there is that reason for it deep in the DNA of the narrative, if it's because of previous familiarity or just because Stross has got better at using it (I think it is actually a very difficult way to write) but whatever, I think that here device really helps the narrative drive along: we follow at least three major characters and a number of minor ones, and sticking to "you" makes it easier to get inside their heads without that check to the narrative you sometimes get when switching. So, lots of points here for matching style to narrative shape (or whatever the proper technical term is).

Another thing the book gets very, very right is its convincing description of the near future. The book is set, I'd guess, about 10 years ahead, so it has to be credible both in terms of recent history and of day to day details - not just the existence of technology but how it's actually deployed. The latter is particularly well done, with ubiquitous augmented reality and a well worked out criminal scene around illegal fabbers (3D printers) using pirated templates to produce a range of stuff from ripped off parts for domestic appliances to some pretty distasteful "toys" (see the books's title). That might have been enough for any other author but Stross thinks through the consequences of this. How would that criminal operation be organised? Where would the feedstock for the fabbers come from? He's always good at these details, but in "Rule 34" they feel particularly well worked through. There's an amusing incident where one of the fab operators downloads a rather nasty pieces of malware which mucks up his product, and we see the operational difficulties for Lothian & Borders police of carbon rationing (the idea of a police Seqway haring along with blue lights flashing and siren blaring had me in fits of giggles).

So, the book is technically very good, it's future is credible, what about plot, what about characters? They're well done too. All the central characters are well drawn and convincing (of course it's useful here that Liz has a hinterland established in "Halting State") - nastily so in the case of Christie, who is a really, really warped killer. (There is some pretty unpleasant stuff around Christie: being in his head is not a nice experience). The plot twists and turns nicely. The lead in is a very suspicious death (described as a "two wetsuit job") which soon becomes part of a trend (Kavanagh's squad is devoted to following up Internet spread criminal - or just plain weird - memes) but it isn't the murder case itself that is the main point of the story, more the origin and motivation of the perpetrator. It's hard to say more than that without giving too much of the story away. The plot doesn't have quite so many wheels within wheels as Stross's earlier books often did (though I'm glad they're not wholly absent - the abovementioned bread mix is one of them, and the reader is left to do some thinking about who was doing what to whom). I noticed the same thing with his last book, The Fuller Memorandum - I don't know whether it's an evolution in his writing style or conscious self-restraint in those particular books. Either way it makes for a tauter story, and in my view, this is the best he's written so far, by some way.

Strongly recommended.
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on 20 December 2012
Stross is an exceptionally inventive writer, with a deliriously nasty flavour to his writing, but while Rule 34 is a smartly-constructed, very readable and diverting novel, this near-future cybercrime thriller left me feeling more than a bit disappointed.

The plot is sound, logical and well-worked to a satisfactory climax. The characterisation is decent, if fairly perfunctory. The structure of the novel, built around three points of view (the cop, the killer and the chump), is smart and suits the needs of the plot. The prose is clear, cliche-free and witty. Some reviewers have found the novel hard to follow, and found the snippets of Scots dialect distracting, but neither will be an issue for readers who have moved on to the literary equivalent of solid foods.

So why the disappointment? Because Stross is so inventive, and because he's got literary chops. His portayal of a near-future world crippled by ongoing economic gloom and out-of-control IT developments is fascinating and convincing, if more than a little depressing. The decision to use this as the backdrop for a fairly trivial story (essentially, it's a police procedural with cybertrappings and an almost literal deus ex machina that, rather smartly, isn't a cop-out) is a big let-down. Don't get me wrong, the setting and the plot are cleverly and robustly linked, but you can't help feeling that there's far more interesting stuff to hear about the world of the novel, and, maddeningly, that Stross is more than capable of delivering that. It's as though he's settled for the soft option. Because he's a very capable writer, the soft option is still a clever, gripping novel that delivers, on its own terms, a fine story, but it's also clear from the novel itself that he's capable of something far more substantial. Thus, for this reader, Rule 34 became more and more annoying as it went along, because of its lack of ambition and the way it became increasingly evident that, if he chose to push himself, Stross could deliver a truly stunning work set in this world.

Must try harder, as they used to say in school reports.
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on 13 May 2013
This is a sequel to Stross's earlier Halting State, although you don't need to be familiar with the earlier work to make sense of this one.

It's a page-turner alright, filled with believable characters having an awful time for our entertainment, and the text sizzles with humour. You'll have to be a geek to understand all the little jokes, but that's not a pre-requisite for enjoying the book, you'll just get more out of it if you're from the right background.

Unconditionally recommended for all but the most puritan of agèd aunts, as it gets a bit nasty at times.
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on 8 September 2014
Up-to-date Science Fiction / Crime novel based in Edinburgh with a wicked sense of humour. Detective Inspector Liz is involved in a series of bizarre deaths e.g. a compromised colonic irrigation machine. Police personnel all wear augmented reality glasses, and occasionally use Segways which can autonomously return to base themselves. 3D printers and pirate model data is used illegally by 'fabbers' to make all sorts of things including prepubescent animatronic sex dolls. I found this excellent book easier to read than Halting State.
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on 17 June 2013
I don't normally go in for near-future sci fi, but the reviews convinced me to give it a go and boy, were they right. This detective/crime novel set in a dystopian near-future has some things in common with the earlier parts of Hugh Howey's "Wool" (which I did enjoy, but was not so struck by) but it's much better written and better plotted. The entire novel is written in the second person, which I thought I would find grating, but I quickly found absolutely immersive. And without wishing to give away too much of the ending, there's a reason second person narrative turns out to be absolutely appropriate. The plot is gripping. Definitely recommend.
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on 23 January 2012
Imagine a near future Scotland, now largely independent of England, where the Edinburgh Police Department contends with internet crime via its "Rule 34" squad headed by Detective Inspector Liz Kavanagh. Charles Stross has adapted Lynda La Plante's "Prime Suspect" into a near future post-cyberpunk crime thriller, "Rule 34", resulting in one of the most well-received novels of science fiction and fantasy published last year, earning acclaim as one of Time magazine's best. Celebrated widely as one of contemporary science fiction's best thinkers, Stross hasn't written a literary clone of La Plante's hit television series, but instead, a most fascinating look into cybercrime itself, giving us an all too plausible nightmarish scenario demonstrating how Artificial Intelligence may become involved. His Liz Kavanaugh is no mere clone of Jane Tennison , La Plante's no-nonsense heroine, and yet, like Tennison, she is an extraordinarily well developed, quite complex, character possessed by demons of her own making, struggling to meet her superior's highest expectations. Stross offers some of his best writing to date via an active tense that heightens the reader's sense of observing exactly what Liz Kavanagh and several other key characters see (But an active tense that may also confuse readers who are trying to discern which character is which.). And yet, Stross' fine prose doesn't quite match the artistic excellence I have come to expect from the likes of William Gibson, Michael Swanwick, and especially, China Mieville and, quite frankly, pales in comparison with China Mieville's "The City & The City" with regards to both the quality of the prose and the considerable thought that Mieville has given with respect to his novel's plot. Still, Stross' latest novel is well worth considering simply for his near future vision of cybercrime as well as for pure entertainment as a page turner.
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on 27 September 2012
Charles Stross has written a near future crime novel where some sort of artificial intelligence murders people. We are reading this story from the viewpoint of several people. This makes it interesting at best but it also keeps you jumping around instead of trying to know one or two main characters. The First half of the book you keep wondering how it all is interconnected but then Mr Stross manages to bring all these individual stories into one main sequence of events so the book picks up from there. Unfortunately there are to few explanations to get you into whats is going on and the end just leaves you hanging wondering why it ended abruptly and what will happen to all the participants.

I found the book to be interesting at best but had a hard time feeling engaged by the story. It might have a larger value to some people that are into AI and the latest in network technology but for me it was a long journey at times interesting but towards an abrupt ending.
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on 1 December 2012
Set in the same world as Halting State, things have gone downhill since then, it's very much used future, edging toward dystopia.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, the first of the 3 major ones being a cynical Detective Inspector, Liz Kavanaugh, who we met as a rising star in Halting State. Her star is on the wane now as a result of the events in that book. The other two are Anwar, a small time crook who has gotten in way over his head and the mysterious Toymaker, who runs a rather unpleasant criminal syndicate. Their stories start to interconnect when a ex-con known to DI Kavanaugh is found murdered in an unusual manner.

Things rapidly go South from there, and the body count goes through the roof and conspiracies start to pile up in a rather nasty trainwreck.

I found the twist at the end a bit obvious and disappointing. It's almost as if Stross were ticking the Cyberpunk thriller boxes and found he'd left a cliché out, so he shoved it in there.

Overall a good read, if disappointing at the end. Not Stross's best, certainly not as good as Halting State, but better than most
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on 25 December 2013
I have found that Stross writes various sci-fi and fantasy series. I'm not a huge fan of the fantasy series, but this book kind of follows on from Halting State which I loved. It's more complex than the Laundry books but still fascinating, thought provoking and absorbing.
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