Rule 34 by Charles Stross

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce

Rule 34 US cover

Rule 34 UK cover

Rule 34 states that if you can think of it, there's porn of it on the Internet. While porn—its consumption and policing—plays a role in Charles Stross's latest novel, it is by no means its focus. Instead, the central issue is that other main use of the Internet: spam. Creating it, getting it around filters, trying to stop it, and its many many uses—this is what concerns most of the characters in the novel, directly or indirectly.

It is difficult to give a good overview of the narrative because several different points of view are presented throughout, all with very particular concerns. Still, let me give you some of the characters' starting points. DI Liz Kavanagh is a cop whose career has ground to a standstill. She's stuck in the Innovative Crimes Investigation Unit, or ICIU (a "booby-prize they gave . . . for backing the wrong side in a political bun-fight" (p. 5)), which garners little respect from the rest of the police department (Kavanagh believes they view her unit as "a dumping ground for the weird ones" (p. 42)), and has correspondingly few resources (they're housed in the former stables). Her life becomes more manic and her unit receives more attention when she is called to the scene of a very, very weird death—a "two-wetsuit job," meaning "kinky beyond the call of duty" (p. 4).

At the other end of the employment spectrum is Anwar, a small-time criminal on probation, who has just landed a job as honorary consul for a brand-new Eastern European country through a contact at the pub; what could possibly go wrong with that? And then there is the Toymaker, one of the most unpleasant characters it has ever been my misfortune to encounter and inhabit as a reader, who pops up to make life unhappy for all the other characters and draw some of the disparate narratives together. These are the dominant points of view for the first third of the book, and they continue throughout. Other points of view are introduced gradually, the most important of whom is a military man in that brand-new Eastern European country, who may or may not have his country's best interests at heart and whose country may or may not be involved in a spamming operation. All of these strands sound largely unrelated, and for the first half of the story it is unclear how they can possibly be woven together into a convincing pattern. However, Stross manages it. He uses coincidences ( . . . or are they?), and minor details, to draw characters into orbit around each other or around common objects, until the connections crystallize. The story and the characters revolve around uncovering just who is responsible for the spate of two-wetsuit jobs that are cropping up all over Europe, and how those are related both to an Internet spam operation and to illegal importation.

The world that Stross imagines, some twenty years from now, is more hyperconnected than today but still some way off the wildest fantasies of 1980s cyberpunk. The police are required to "lifelog" all of their interactions and investigations via their specs (glasses with built-in wifi and video-streaming), because Joe Public is doing just that, and they are naturally concerned about transparency and accountability. They collaborate with one another both physically and via CopSpace, with virtual Post-It notes and memos as well as instant file-sharing. The greatest technological advance is the fabber, a machine capable of replicating anything—"from counterfeit pharmaceuticals through to design patterns for nightmares" (p. 43)—given sufficient feedstock and appropriate blueprints. It features throughout the plot, but with little fuss, as though is is an old, accepted, mundane part of domestic life. Which means it better be put on the market right quick if I'm to be bored by it in two decades.

All of this new technology has not, however, made life either easier or necessarily happier for most people—which should not be a surprise, since our own technological advances have not done that to date. Despite a fairly lighthearted tone overall, the majority of the relationships in the novel—intimate, business, passing—are characterized almost entirely by discord, with occasional moments of truce, and rarely of peace. Kavanagh's only non-work relationship is with her "on-again off-again will-she-or-won't-she nuisance lover" (p. 54), who looks her up when she's in town partly for pleasure but partly for business, too, to Kavanagh's chagrin. At work, conversations with her boss are characterized by glowers, an abrupt manner, grim expressions, glares, and snorts on his part (that's just one conversation over two pages, pp. 38-9)—later escalating to the boss swearing long and loud at her).

Anwar's personal life is a disaster. He was married by arrangement to Bibi, "a firm believer in male telepathy" (p. 56), which is disastrous all by itself. Their relationship woes are compounded by Anwar being far more interested in any young men he might find "up the hill and through the graveyard" (p. 234) than in Bibi. He thinks he has kept this a secret—along with his fondness for beer ("the Prophet said nothing against Deuchars IPA, did he?" (p. 19))—but it turns out that he is as bad at covering up his personal preferences as he is at holding a normal job. And the Toymaker is a sociopath, making all of his interactions with other people unpleasant; his attitude is characterized by thinking that "[v]iolence is a regrettable but necessary overhead on the balance sheet" (p. 73). It's a story that might be called gritty if you enjoy that sort of thing, violent and unpleasant if you don't (one character to another: "Just don't fuck up and make us come for your other kidney" (p. 36)). The most prominent example of this is a sex scene involving a female character and the Toymaker; they agree to use a safeword, and he is "dominant . . . [having] somehow managed to immobilize you" (p. 208)—none of which is a problem for the woman, who knowingly responded to his ad ("SWM seeks SWF for edge-play" (p. 207)). However, after he "shoot[s] his load" (p. 209), he dismisses her (you) with "You can go now"—and she (you) are left "haunted by a simple question. If you'd used the safeword on him, would he have stopped?" (p. 210). I would find this scene unpleasant in any context, because of the Toymaker's casual use and dismissal of the woman; however, it is far more unpleasant because the events are related in the second person.

The most interesting aspect of Rule 34, which for me was quite an unsavory aspect, is that it is written in the second person. Opening with "It's a slow Tuesday afternoon, and you're coming to the end of your shift" (p. 3), and continuing with "Let's see if we can blag a ride, shall we?" (p. 6), the reader is directly and deliberately implicated in what goes on throughout—but with no suggestion that they are making their own decisions. I found this quite discomfiting, particularly when I realized that it was not just one point of view that was presented this way, but the entire multiple point-of-view novel. While it can sometimes be hard to read a story with multiple first person points of view, because I-the-reader must shift frame of reference frequently, shifting between second person points of view is even harder. Here, it's not I-the-character choosing to do something and then shifting to a different I; instead, I-the-reader am being told what I am doing and why. There is a total lack of volition on the reader's part in this storytelling mode. The reader is not allowed to imagine that they-as-character are sleeping with her/hurting him/fighting them for their own reasons, as in a first-person narrative. Instead, the reader is just told what is happening to them, and what they are doing.

This links, in very interesting and undoubtedly deliberate ways, with a discussion on just such topics of free will, volition, and decision-making patterns and habits that occurs towards the end of the novel. It suggests that the experience of reading this story is in some ways analogous to our unwitting experience of life itself; that there is no free will, and our assumption that we choose to make the decisions we make via a rational thought process is all so much hot air. All of this makes the use of the second person narrative very interesting, but for me it did not entirely work. The reader is told what they are doing or what is happening to them, but there is no indication of who is doing the telling. A first person narrative is told by a character, a third person narrative by some omniscience or other—and it may be that Western readers are so accustomed to these two forms that we barely question them anymore. A second person narrative, though, throws up the question of narrator in a very immediate and even troubling way. There is some hint in the conclusion to the novel about who the narrator is supposed to be, but that was unsatisfying because it did not, in the end, explain anything.

The conclusion itself I found unsatisfactory, which along with the difficulties of reading a second-person narrative meant that Rule 34 was not overall an enjoyable reading experience. My general lack of interest in the characters themselves, at least partly resulting from their apparent lack of volition, undoubtedly compounded my disinterest. While the use of the second-person is a clever narrative technique and the plot does come together in clever ways, having a conclusion that involved the introduction of a completely new character's point of view problematized rather than clarifying some of the unresolved issues, such as the identify of the person responsible for numerous deaths, and the future of policing. Rather than feeling open-ended and tantalizing, this lack of resolution is abrupt and disconcerting, like missing a step on stairs; and it felt like a cop-out, along the lines of " . . . and then they woke up." So, some clever ideas, but not compellingly executed.

Alexandra Pierce reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy, blogs about it at Randomly Yours, Alex, and talks about it as one third of the Galactic Suburbia podcast team. In between, she tries to instill a love of English and History in high school students.