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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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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 28 December 2014
Rule 34 is a novel set about twenty minutes into the future in an independent Scotland where self-driving cars are commonplace, nanotechnology is being perfected, everyone wears what basically amount to advanced Google glasses constantly instead of using phones or computers, and a series of spammers are being found dead in strange incidents involving faulty appliances.

Liz Kavanaugh is the police officer who has to work out the link between this series of deaths, a former offender who is now apparently the diplomatic consul for the new county Issyk-Kulistan, and the strange man John Christie who keeps turning up where he really shouldn’t be, and might know more than he lets on. The plot is a crime novel, dealing with officers, victims and suspects alike, tying their stories up together in a Gordian Knot of a mess.

Frankly that’s about all I can tell you about the plot. There’s also some dodgy stuff here about paedophilia, a dash of cyberpunk, and a lot about AI and at what point its intelligence stops being artificial. Otherwise, I’m stumped. The novel jumps about too quickly and doesn’t give you much time to breathe or keep up. I did read that this is a loose sequel to another Stross book, and perhaps if I’d read that first, I’d understand more of what was going on here, but I’m not sure. The cyberpunk and future-tech elements are interesting but barely elaborated upon, instead giving over long passages to details that obviously mean a great deal to the characters but not to me.

The book is written in second person, too, which is an unusual and brave choice, and I would imagine would be successful as a tool if used correctly here. While it is consistent, it neither adds or detracts anything to the story here, merely blending the main characters (there are around eight or nine characters that are described as “you” at one point or another) and not allowing them to speak in their own voices and differenciate themselves enough. The first chapters are heavy on Scottish dialect and accent, using slang from north of the border, but Stross quickly seems to tire of it, resorting to a few words here and there, and then remembering about it towards the end again. Like the events in the book, it’s messy, disjointed and didn’t do anything for me.

According to other reviews I’ve read, it seems to have had a generally positive reception. A sequel was planned but later cancelled when Stross claimed that it was all becoming too real to be considered fiction and the next part didn’t need to be told. I’ve never read Stross before and I don’t know if all of his stuff is like this, but I found myself ploughing through hoping that it got better.
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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 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 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 10 October 2012
Rule 34 is Stross on top form. The subject matter is dark to the point of being disturbing and it took me a while to get through the strong dialect at the beginning, but it's worth sticking with it. The story is told from the viewpoint of the various protagonists and they merge seamlessly as the book reaches its conclusion. In the end I had to read the whole of the end of the book in one sitting (unusual for me). Rule 34 is an absolutely first rate work from one of the most talented authors currently writing. I really hope there are more books to come in this series.
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on 17 April 2012
I enjoyed Halting State and other Charlie Stross books, so I had high hopes for Rule 34; I was not dissapointed.
Though the characters have no real depth, the situations/interactions/settings are what sing for me in his works. He carries off the feeling of Edinburgh of the near future (accents and feel for locations) with quite scary believability. COPSpace is on its way!
Written for an adult audience (not for younger readers), I'd highly reccomend a jaunt into the seedy side of future Central Belt Scotland.
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on 12 June 2012
I liked Halting state and I certainly enjoyed Rule 34. Porn is everywhere and definitely on the internet. THe story progresses nicely and draws you in. It helps if you read Halting State, especially to get to grips with the tone. It is not necessary for the story. I giggled and let myself be swept along in the meanders of the story and partly silliness. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes their entertainment with a vaguely serious look at society. It is well written otherwise I wouldn't have whisked through it.
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