Charles Stross, Rule 34 (2011)

Charles Stross returns to the near-future Edinburgh of his 2007 novel Halting State for this police procedural (though I’ve not read the earlier book, I don’t believe there is any substantial crossover between the two). A decade from now, DI Liz Kavanaugh’s CID career has stalled as she’s currently heading up the Innovative Crime Investigation Unit (or ‘Rule 34 Squad’), which investigates crime based on the spreading of internet memes; one of ICIU’s current cases, the bizarre murder of a known spammer, suddenly gains more prominence when similar crimes come to light. Elsewhere, Anwar Hussain, an ex-crook on probation, gets a job through a friend as Consul for a months-old breakaway republic, though he doesn’t quite appreciate what he’s getting into; and a man known to us as ‘the Toymaker’ arrives in Scotland to set up a new branch of his criminal enterprise – if only the people he’s there to recruit didn’t keep getting themselves murdered…

Perhaps the most immediately noticeable thing about Rule 34 is that (like Halting State) it is written in the second-person. Now, a childhood of adventure gamebooks and text adventures means I’m reasonably used to being addressed as ‘you’ by a text; but that kind of narration has always tended to distance me from viewpoint characters, because it focuses my attention on action rather than on interior life – and I found that to be the case again here. There are a few occasions when emotion leaps off the page; but, for the most part, the style gets in the way.

Mentioning the style brings to mind Christopher Priest’s infamous comment that ‘Stross writes like an internet puppy’. He has a point – Stross tends to include slightly more detail than will sit comfortably in the narrative, and there are times when this threatens to halt Rule 34 in its tracks (especially a long stretch of exposition towards the end) – but there’s also a restless energy to Stross’s telling; at its best, the writing works very well indeed (a passage on the war on spam, for example, captures an aspect of Stross’s imagined future in a particularly compelling way).

Stross presents an intriguing vision of a society which is substantially more technologically advanced than the present, yet still fraying at the edges; a world of fluidity and compromise. Police officers are wired into an augmented reality called ‘CopSpace’, but useful teleconferencing and face recognition remain beyond reach.Scotland has seceded from the United Kingdom, but not fully, so politics can be messily ambiguous. Policing is less about great detectives than groups of workers searching for patterns in data (‘crowdsourcing by cop,’ as Stross puts it [p. 227]). Throughout the novel, we see individuals, groups, and nations finding gaps and weak points in the system to use to their own advantage, or at least to get by.

As a procedural, I don’t think Rule 34 works quite so well: some of the connections between plot threads take too long to come into the narrative after they’ve been made apparent to the reader; the threads as a whole don’t mesh together as successfully as they might; and the foregrounding towards the end of a particular plot element (which has previously been mentioned in passing) is rather too abrupt. But the book and the world around the procedural are what make Rule 34 worth reading – and what make it one of the stronger titles on this year’s Clarke shortlist.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Charles Stross’s website
Some other reviews of Rule 34: Maureen Kincaid Speller; Dan Hartland; Niall Alexander.


  1. I do need to eventually read this. I’ve liked a lot of Stross over the years, The Laundry series, Accelerando, Glasshouse, etc. but sometimes I feel like he’s trying too hard to be too much? ehh, i dunno, there are stretches of writing that you can only get away with if the title of the book is Neuromancer.

  2. This is the first Stross I’ve read, but I see where you’re coming from with trying too hard. I think he gets the balance right more often than not in this book, though.

  3. He’s a very enthusiastic writer in my experience, which is both his strength and his weakness. The two can’t be separated I suspect. Effervescent’s another good word for him, bubbling with ideas some of which should probably be left in the pot, but then SF is a literature of ideas.

    So I sympathise with Priest, but on the other hand there is a sense where he’s criticising Stross for being Stross, and I’m not sure what else Stross could (or should) be.

    A Colder War is worth checking out. It’s a novella, legitimately available free online, and pretty well done particularly if you’re an HP Lovecraft fan.

  4. David Hebblethwaite

    17th May 2012 at 10:59 pm

    That’s a very valid point, Max – Stross is Stross, and to an extent you simply have to go with what he’s doing. I guess you could also say that he represents a particular approach to writing sf, and it’s a question of finding the ways in which that approach is done well.

    Wasn’t A Colder War published in Spectrum SF originally? If so, I’ve probably read it, albeit a good few years ago.

  5. That sounds right actually, so you may well have.

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