Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh runs the Internet Porn Squad, a policing backwater in near-future Edinburgh: but that’s about to change. Anwar Hussein, Scottish-Pakistani bisexual married Muslim with a taste for beer and petty Internet crime is about to become Honorary Consul for a new central-Asian state with a dodgy provenance. John Christie aka Peter Manuel (neither is his real name), a psychotic sociopath, is in town to set up a new criminal franchise on behalf of ‘The Organisation’.
What they don’t know is that all their actions are being ‘nudged’ by yet another protagonist, one lurking behind the veil of the Internet, one with motives even murkier than their own.
The plot springs into action from page 1. Liz, as duty Inspector, is called to a murder scene, an expensive town house with a “hangar-sized bathroom” where the victim is lying on the tiled floor connected to an enema machine. Something very weird has been pumped into him. Soon similar bizarre murders are cropping up across Europe; the victims are all involved in spamming.
Stross has three plot lines running in parallel. The police investigation basically hasn’t a clue what’s going on, they’re well out of their depth. Hussein is a foot soldier for what one might call the ‘outer conspiracy’, which will be revealed later on; Christie also, although from another side. The ‘deep conspiracy’ is best hidden of all, not emerging until the end of the story.
As with China Miéville’s work, setting is central to Stross, but whereas Miéville’s settings are dark and organic, emergent from the turgid swirlings of the id, Stross’s are fast, brittle and shiny: Internet gewgaws from the superego. He has a felicitous turn-of-phrase: I particularly liked ‘she’s so far out of her tree that the squirrels are sending out search parties’ (p. 131), but the text is full of such inventive metaphor and description.
Another thing to like is the insider knowledge of pharmaceuticals (not all illegal), Internet architecture and artificial intelligence, which the author binds together in insightful ways to drive the plot. Even the necessary data dumps are handled with finesse.
So we have interesting settings and characters, global conspiracies and strange murders: what’s not to like?
The first thing to observe is that this is quite a niche-novel. I’ve been in the Internet/AI business for my whole career and I was reading this novel with my smartphone at my side to look up obscure Internet acronyms which I’d forgotten (or, let us say, never felt a need for!). This book is not going to work for people who are less than obsessed with virtuality.
A more generic criticism is that Stross has violated A. E. van Vogt’s (albeit rather mechanical) rule that you should engineer a crisis every 800 words or so. While his writing is never less than interesting, there are too many sections of the story where Stross is simply moving the pieces around the board to get to the next staged scene. Not quite enough adrenalin.
My final point is that Stross has once again defied common practice and written this book in second person. You are lesbian Liz Kavanaugh; you are the bisexual Muslim, you are the delusional, homicidal sociopath. You are also some of the supporting characters. Now, I don’t find this as jarring as some people, but it’s a kind of in-your-face injection of an identification with people ‘you’ probably aren’t like at all. I wonder whether this doesn’t make it harder for the author to properly delineate the distinctive and even pathological characteristics of his main protagonists; at best it’s a little monochrome.
Finally, we come to the ‘Rule 34’ of the title. It’s an Internet meme which state ‘If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.’ So here’s the curious thing: this is not a novel about Internet pornography at all; in fact it’s almost the opposite, a novel about how we might yet uphold morality in the age of hyper-complexity we’re about to enter.