Friday, 10 July 2015

Rule 34 by Charles Stross

I think I might be reading books out of order again. If this is the second book in a series, though, I can say that I read it without any trouble catching up to where we were or what was going on. I'm sure  characters were developed in the first book, but this one seems to stand alone. I'll probably track down the other at some point, but this is not one of those cases where I'm cursing my general lack of ability to read things in order.

It took me a while to warm up to Charles Stross. I find some of his first books frustratingly opaque, with big ideas that he didn't slow down long enough to really share with me. Feeling lost was one of my first memories of the books I've read. That's been changing, as I read. Not so much that I'm catching up, as it feels like he's allowing the reader in just a little more. And while there are still tons of big ideas, they're now more in the service of the story and character, in ways that I very much enjoy.

Rule 34 is a good example. I was never entirely lost, although some of the book was challenging me to keep up, but I was more engaged with Liz and the other characters than in some of his previous books.

Rule 34 takes place in Edinburgh. Liz was a rising police officer, but has been sidelined into internet crimes. Anwar is just out of jail, where Liz put him, trying not to get caught again, but not necessarily trying to keep his nose clean. And there's a psychopath, The Toymaker, in Edinburgh to set up a new franchise opportunity.

Then spammers start dying in gruesome domestic accidents, with no apparent suspects. Liz has to investigate, but the research reveals this may not be a local phenomenon.

This book incorporates fabber culture, country-wide scams, and, of course, the possibility of porn about everything, as the title suggests. Many of the characters are queer, which I was primed for by Stross' opening page quote of a right-wing nitwit claiming everyone in Scotland was gay. Well, why the hell not? Liz's problem is not so much how her sexuality is regarded by her coworkers - doesn't really raise any eyebrows - but that she can't turn the cop off for long enough to stay in a relationship. Anwar is married, but cruises. The Toymaker is just...a psychopath.

I bring this up because I enjoy science fiction that incorporates sex and sexuality into the book. This is not the book for the rant, because sex is oblique but definitely present. But I've had a rant building about sex in science fiction rising since I read Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, and after I'd written and posted my review, ran into a bunch of people in my online book club most distressed about the sex. Since then, I've been looking for a science fiction book with sex I enjoyed to write about why it's a good thing. That was several years ago.

This comes close, but not quite, so I'll hang onto it. (Now, why didn't I write it when I wrote my review of Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente a couple of years ago? I guess because it was fantasy, and sex in fantasy novels is a bit different.) My point is, thank goodness for science fiction writers grown up enough to include a little sex.

That's a complete digression, though, that has little to do with Rule 34, and much to do with me, so I'll come back around to this book by saying that the last few Stross books I've read I've enjoyed a lot, and this is not an exception. It's entertaining, kept me engrossed, and even a little grossed out by some of the deaths. (And the psychopath.) It's a good yarn, with interesting characters, and big ideas that inform the story without taking it over. Unless they do. But I can't say what that means without giving away the ending.


  1. The first book, Halting State, has only minor continuity with Rule 34 - Liz is in it, but I think that's the only crossover character, and she's not the main protagonist in Halting State.