The near-future setting and focus on technological changes makes it tempting to call Rule 34 a cyberpunk novel, but unlike most in the genre, it focuses on the effects of technology on ordinary people, instead of the hackers who create it. In Rule 34’s case, the focus is on the police investigation of a string of bizarre murders apparently related to Internet spamming.
Set in the near future of 2030 or so, the book derives its name from the commonly held rubric that Rule 34 of the Internet is “If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.” The main character, Liz Kavanaugh, is a cop in Edinburgh assigned to the Rule 34 squad, which chases meme-crimes—scouring the darkest corners of the Internet to detect whether people’s darkest fantasies are turning into reality anywhere. Rule 34 doesn’t do a great deal with this setup, unfortunately, but it does turn in a couple of equally interesting directions.
The procedural aspect of the murder mystery is akin to The Wire mashed up with Snow Crash. Bureaucracy combined with attempts to standardize and modernize the police force have also dehumanized its workers, burying them under a flurry of wiki updates, meetings, AI recommendations, and transportation priorities.
Author Charles Stross also extrapolates current research on online social networking into institutions and as a broader social phenomenon. Liz’s part-time girlfriend Dorothy uses research based on Enron’s e-mails to audit corporate ethics, while the one actual hacker in the book, “Gnome,” focuses on computer systems that can understand social networks and predict behavior, including criminal behavior. There’s a great deal of this kind of extrapolation, and it’s entirely, almost surprisingly believable that this is the future.
Rule 34, a loose sequel to Stross’ Halting State, shares its predecessor’s voice, as the book is written entirely in the second person. What initially seems like a fascinating but too-clever experiment quickly becomes normal and even useful for understanding characters who, in some cases, readers might not want to understand. It’s one of the many areas where Rule 34 masks its ambitions with playfulness, while managing to achieve all those goals and then some.