Charles Stross’s latest novel, Rule 34, is one of the notable books of 2011, a cyberpunk novel for the social media age. Gone is the notion of revolutionary computers and technologies just out of reach: this futuristic Scotland is a recognizable world that’s just around the corner, one that shows just how scary a high-technology future can become.
Taking place in the same world as his 2007 novel, Halting State, Rule 34 continues with the forward-thinking look at the state of the world and extrapolates further, looking at our digital world and sees just how the world is changing because of it. The result is a very plausible future, one that has deep roots in the present day.
Stross weaves three distinct – and several minor – story-lines together, starting with a fairly gruesome murder of an internet scammer involving a Soviet-era enema machine and some spiked Viagra. The story jumps forward from there, involving members of the Rule 34 squad as DI Liz Kavanaugh works to piece together the unfolding story. As the story progresses, we’re introduced to Anwar Hussain, a closeted homosexual Muslim who is pulled into a becoming the honorary consul for the newly created and possibly fictional breakaway country of Issyk-Kulistan. Finally, the story is completed with the mysterious and psychopathic Toymaker and his various, paranoid identities. Each of these pieces complete part of the puzzle, running at full sprint as the investigation is ongoing and intertwining in a perfectly paced novel. The mystery deepens are more scammers are killed, while Kavanaugh and her team races to figure out the connection between all of the victims and to catch the perpetrator.
Rule 34 maintains a good balance between some weighty ideas about where the future of the internet is headed and character drama. Few authors have really been able to pull this sort of story off, but their names are highly recognizable: Gibson, McDonald and Bacigalupi. Stross can certainly add this book to his excellent bibliography with some of the recent superior novels out there. While there’s a lot of information dumped into the reader’s lap, there’s never any sense that it’s unneeded, flowery or in the way of the plot or for the underlying character construction. Throughout the novel, we’re treated to a number of points on social engineering, political discourse and information security, all of which makes more than complete sense, and is just enough to make one wary when you pick up your mobile phone.
The jarring part of Rule 34 is the same as in Halting State: the 2nd Person narration, which takes a bit of getting used to, but admittedly, makes the book what it is: I harbor serious doubts that this book could be done as well in the other tenses, even if it does take a couple of chapters to sink in. Fortunately, the compelling story and characters make up for it nicely.
I’ve been reading Rule 34 during a fairly political time in the world: the US is gearing up for new elections this year, while the rest of the world faces serious financial and political challenges in the year ahead. This book is by far Stross’s most political, in that it’s cognizant of how the next couple of years will play out. It’s not because of convenient momentum, but because Stross understands just why society works the way it does, picking out several characters to illustrate his points, one by one. If there was any book that I’d want to push on the current political hopefuls, it would be this book; not just to ensure that they’ll be mindful of how they use the internet, but just how the internet and society uses all of us.