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Book Review: Rule 34 by Charles Stross

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Charles Stross has managed to frustrate me something fierce with his latest novel, Rule 34. Well written, whip-smart sharp and funny, it reminds me of the experience I had in reading a book from a novelist some 18 years ago; an experience that even the self-same author never again managed to bring out of me. The book was Vurt, the writer Jeff Noon, and at the time I thought it was the best science fiction book I’d ever read.

Vibrant, crackling with the energy of a William Gibson at his most visionary, I thought Vurt was the most interesting representation of any “near present” science fiction that I was ever going to read in my life.

I was wrong. Rule 34 has managed not just to relight those same feelings and excitements I felt when reading that novel long ago, but to show by the fierce light emanating off of the sheer talent of Stross that what I had thought long ago to be a bright light was simply a flickering candle.

Rule 34 is a sequel to Halting State, a novel I’ve yet to read but am now definitely planning to in the near future. Its title is a loose reference to the supposed 34th rule of the Internet, which is a meme that states “if something exists then there is porn dedicated to it.”

Written in a second-person present tense format, presumably to echo the feeling of playing a game or otherwise experiencing “reality” in the guise and personality of an avatar, Rule 34 seems to begin as a semi-conventional detective story (Detective Investigator Liz Kavanaugh is the most vibrant female detective I’ve come across in any book since Jasper Fforde penned Thursday Next into his Jane Eyre Affair) only to sprawl into this wondrous philosophical look at how the technology and the internet are not only so heavily involved with life and reality in this “near” future, but in reflection how that is true in the current world of this book’s reading audience.

As for the story, Rule 34 is set in a world where weird murder cases begin showing up on the radar (and caseload) of Detective Investigator Liz Kavinaugh (head of Department 34 which ostensibly deals with runaway internet memes turned illegal or lethal) where ex-spammers die (hello lethal and illegal!) by way of any number of combinations of weird drugs and runaway or defective machines (some deaths and the descriptions of the scenes are graphic enough that I’d hope this book would never be placed near a public school library).

Featuring a lovely menagerie of less-than-savory characters Rule 34 blossoms into this fascinating and disturbing whirlwind of subplots that all eventually dovetails together into one of the most intelligent and intensely readable novels I’ve enjoyed not only in some years but in quite some decades. It requires thought and effort, mind you, as all but the readers who invest effort into this book might find their eyes glazed over and think it simply a “techno” thriller.

It’s more than that, by far. In Rule 34 Charles Stross has managed to craft a wonderful and wonderfully articulate (I say that despite the brunt of the novel being set in Edingburgh which means most of the written dialect is filled with this soaring and swooping cross-section of Scottish euphemism and slang that is so engrained that i found myself reading it in the voice of James Doohan’s character, Scotty from Star Trek) novel that might not set the world ablaze with its sales numbers — it doesn’t feature Harry Potter or a half undressed werewolf swooning at an equally half undressed young woman or anything of that sort — but it will set the minds of those fortunate enough to read it ablaze with wonder and the joy of a damned good book written by a damned good author.

Can you tell that I enjoyed the book? Good. Can you also tell that I want you to run out and purchase a copy of this book if you have any desire whatsoever to read possibly the best science fiction book written in quite some time? Good … then do so.

Without hesitation this is 4.75 of our 5 stars for me. And that’s only because I fully expect to hear an angelic hallelujah choir sound of in my nether regions when, or if, I ever run across a 5 star book in my lifetime.

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