rule 34“It’s a slow Tuesday afternoon, and you’re coming to the end of your shift on the West End control desk when Sergeant McDougall IMs you: INSPECTOR WANTED ON FATACC SCENE.”

Last week, my colleague was flabberghasted that I’d managed to read a 360-odd page book in three days, which seems about fine to me. However, it’s now taken me nine days to read a book of pretty much the same length. It wasn’t that I was much busier or anything, but it just goes to show the difference that it can make when you’re enjoying a book and when you’re not. As you may surmise from that, here comes another bad review.

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. Most distressingly of all, at the end of the book is the opening chapter of Intrusion by Ken MacLeod, which I reviewed a few months ago. The chapter begins by insisting that if you loved Rule 34, you’ll love Intrusion. As it is, I loved Intrusion, but was deeply underwhelmed by Rule 34, which had a surprising amount of potential but felt wasted.

If you like cyberpunk, and you like looking at the terrifying implications of modern technology and the direction it’s taking, then by all means have a look, but I can’t recommend the book en masse.

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