Wednesday, May 9, 2012

RULE 34 by Charles Stross

This book is the sequel to Halting State, which I did read first. Halting State is a quick moving techno-thriller that I enjoyed more than any Stross I’d read yet. It took place in a near-future Scotland that has broken from Britain and joined the EU, and concerns a MMORPG gold heist that reveals a darker international conspiracy. Despite a very gimmicky multi-perspective second-person narrator (very off-putting at first, but easy to adjust to and somewhat justified by the book’s focus on gaming), it seemed like Stross was scaling down on ambition and just trying to do a solid tale. It’s a B+ for me.

Rule 34 is very much in a similar vein. We do shift focus from detective Sue Smith to her boss, Liz Cavanaugh, though I’d say, problematically, the voice doesn’t change all that much (both are lesbians – the relationship sub-plot does get more attention this go round). The second person is back, but this time we get a hapless petty crook and a schizophrenic assassin called the “Toymaker” as our other “narrators” (narratees? Wtf?). The latter allows Stross to play with the gimmick a bit, but it’s still a gimmick, and the gaming justification has gone out the window.

After the events of Halting State, Liz has been busted down to Rule 34, a “bizarre internet meme crimes unit.” But, once again, one of her investigations leads to a bigger, international crime. This time it’s a series of bizarre deaths by appliance that lead Liz and co. to uncover a newly-independent nation that’s being used as a debt-farm by oligarchs from the crumbling United States. And, they also encounter one of the oldest sf tropes in the book (I won’t spoil it, but it rhymes with shmurderous AI). At least this latter plot point has a good twist or two, and I won’t forget the term “spamularity” anytime soon.

Some of the ideas are good, and Stross does have a solid grasp on the futurism fads of the day. Again, augmented reality dominates life by 2018…I’ll believe it when I see it. But, the material on policing and governing in the internet age made some interesting, though often histrionic, points.
In the end, I’m still a bit disappointed by what I see as Stross’s unrealized potential. I kind of view him as a less-annoying Robert Sawyer – he focuses on (and extrapolates in too linear a fashion) near-future trends, he offers lots of sociological commentary, he’s plugged into a certain net-culture, and he likes to sprinkle in lots of pop-culture references. I had hoped he’d take the solid start of Halting State and step it up a notch into Neal Stephenson territory of cultural and technological insight (then again, Reamde was an overly long, less insightful Halting State). Instead, it retreads some familiar ground to tell a story that’s entertaining, but also frustrating in several ways.

Grade: B-

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