Rule 34
By Charles Stross

Amazon link to Rule 34Amazon UK link Powell's Used and New Books
Rating: Excellent
3 Stars

First Published: 2011
US Cover Illustration by:  Alberto Seveso
Pages: 358

Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre:  Science Fiction, Crime Thriller, Police Drama



Rule 34 is a science fiction crime thriller by Charles Stross set in Scotland.  The story takes place in the not too far off future of 2023 which is realistically extrapolated from current trends.  The story is basically a gritty police drama that comes off as a realist look into the inner workings of the Scottish Police.  For someone like me who enjoys both crime thrillers and science fiction, this is a great combination.

Rule 34 is narrated in second person present tense from a variety of viewpoints.  This is similar to first person present tense except that the pronoun “you” is used instead of “I”.  The second person viewpoint takes a little while to get used to but what is much more difficult for American readers, is getting used to the strong Scottish dialect used during most of the conversations.  American readers may find themselves having to google some of the words.  The Scottish brogue makes for a little extra work for Americans but is all part of listening in on realistic Scottish conversations.

Stross uses the second person to plunge “you” into quite a variety of diverse viewpoints with a strong emphasis on diversity.  One of the main characters “you” get to experience is Liz, a female detective inspector who happens to be gay.  “You” also get to be, Anwar, a young Muslim family man who is a not so smart cyber criminal.  He has a host of problems including being on probation, not being able to stay away from alcohol, and not being able to avoid occasional homosexual flings despite his love for his wife and kids.   “You” also get to be a highly intelligent but seriously disturbed villain who is clearly a psychopath and has been hired by an organized crime group to take over operations in Scotland.  Clearly, this is not a novel for young readers.  It’s a novel that deals with the messy realities of real life and is meant for mature adults who are not homophobic.  

The Innovative Crime Investigation Unit is a police squad that has been created to deal with trouble from the Internet.  This squad is nicknamed the Rule 34 Squad thanks to a popular web comic that created Rule 34:  “If you can imagine it, there’s pornography about it on the Internet”.  In the logically extended future, the internet is drowning in SPAM and porn with related internet crimes of all kinds imaginable.  Laws and regulations for the internet have exploded in all countries to the point where no one can keep track of all the different crimes and laws much less successfully track down the criminals.  The only way to have a chance of sorting through everything is to use automatic web bots to screen the internet traffic for signs of real crime and then have units, like the Rule 34 Squad, sift through the results in order to track down the worst of the criminals.

Rule 34 starts off with a graphic murder under kinky circumstances.  Murder is rare in Edinburgh but soon this new case leads to a string of murders which all seem to have a connection to internet SPAM.  Liz is a dedicated cop who was a rising star in the police department until something derailed her career and she was banished to an area where no one wanted to work, the Rule 34 Squad.  While she has lost her youthful idealism, she is still excited to be back on the trail of a murder case.  Just as Liz gets involved in the case, the viewpoint shifts to other characters related to the case.  These characters are introduced midstream as the events unfold.  There aren’t any long explanations of character backgrounds.  Instead, the reader has to pick up bits and pieces of information about the characters through their experiences in the novel along with a few flashbacks.  With this technique, Stross doesn’t let the pace get bogged down with background explanations. 

In 2023, the cops have high tech gadgets and ever present database information but the bad guys also have high tech gadgets of their own to counteract the police systems.  The high tech information battle leads to serious complications with the possibility that at least one of the key players may not even be human.  Stross does a good job of keeping the police and the reader guessing while attempting to unravel what is exactly happing.

The only serious flaw I noticed with this novel is that the American hard back cover art doesn’t seem to be connected to the novel.  The cover shows an attractive young woman with lots of tattoos, an attitude, and a gun.  This alone provided plenty of inducement for me to pick up this book.  However, when reading the novel, I couldn’t find the character on the cover.  What is this, the old bait and switch?

If you enjoy police thrillers, like science fiction, and don’t mind trying to make sense of conversations that occur in a strong Scottish brogue, Rule 34 is a must read.  Also, if you are interested in learning where the future of the internet is heading as far as cybercrime and SPAM, this novel provides some thought-provoking predictions.