Charles Stross' new novel, Rule 34, is a near future tale that is nominally a detective story set in the same world as his hit book Halting State. But in fact it's not so much a mystery as it is a sneakily Utopian vision of a world recovering from complete financial collapse — and giving birth to an unexpected form of life in the process.
Tonally, Rule 34 is an oddly pleasing mix of Neuromancer and UK TV series Life on Mars. We roam the world via a sprawling police investigation that reveals how every high tech step forward is always propelled by old school thinking. Spam dildos printed with URLs may spew from 3D printers, and organized crime may use offshore call centers to deploy their operatives, but the same old human motivations are in play. Or are they?
Liz is a cop who runs the Rule 34 squad, which is basically the "weird internet crimes" division of Edinburgh's police force, named after the old Rule 34 meme, which states that anything you can think of has already been turned into porn online. But if you're expecting another tour of Stross' seriously kinky imagination ala his underrated novel Saturn's Children — sorry, that's not what this book is about. Instead, it's about the future of spammers, phishers, and other internet criminals. Today they send you V1@GR@ spam, but tomorrow they deal in everything from illegal 3D patterns for some seriously sick porn shit, to black market nano materials and botnet-coordinated assassinations. When some of these local criminals start getting killed in bizarre accidents, Liz is pulled into an investigation whose edges bleed into entertainingly kooky AI research and international financial shenanigans.
Stross has always been fascinated by economics, and Rule 34 allows him to unspool an alarmingly plausible story of post-crisis economies where banks are highly regulated but countries can become shell corporations for offloading national debt. It's rare to read science fiction that presents future financial systems with the knowledge and humor that you see here. You won't find yourself snoring through Stross' infodumps — you'll be laughing out loud at his clever, cynical scenarios.
Somehow, at the heart of a shell country called Issyk-Kulistan, there lies a tangle of financial trickery and organized internet crime so complicated that it seems to have conferred consciousness on an experimental botnet designed to stop spammers.
We watch everything getting gradually stranger from Liz's perspective, as well as the perspectives of a sociopathic criminal named simply the Toymaker, and a low-level scam coder named Anwar whose petty crime pals have installed him as the head of Issyk-Kulistan's Scottish consulate. Slowly and fascinatingly, the three characters enter into a collision course via a series of coincidences so carefully engineered that no human mind could ever have crafted them. The joy in this unfolding plot isn't discovering the solution to a mystery, but instead finding out all the bizarre ways that unconnected events are actually deeply connected. Oh, and also learning why one of Anwar's jobs is distributing black market bread mix.
Earlier I called Rule 34 sneakily Utopian. Though this world at first seems quite dark, with its collapsed economies and mind-boggling crimes, Stross has (at least to this American reader) a fairly optimistic idea of how governments will deal with the collapse of the banking system. Instead of descending into corporate feudalism, nations in Stross' near future have tightened ethics regulations on banks and other financial institutions. Specialized ethics investigators use software tools that comb through corporate communications in search "pathological patterns" similar to those we saw during the recent banking crisis. That way, they can stop another financial crisis before it happens.
Combine the idea of a government trying to ferret out corporate corruption with Liz's constant patter about how none of her homophobic colleagues are allowed to snark about her gayness due to anti-discrimination laws, and you've got a weirdly rosy view of tomorrow. Especially when you add in what's brewing at the heart of all those connections I mentioned earlier. You could almost read Rule 34 as a book about what happens right before the singularity goes down. Or you could read it as an inventive police procedural set five minutes into the future. Either way, I guarantee you will enjoy yourself immensely. Charles Stross is always a pleasure to read, and this is one of this best books yet.
Rule 34 is available via Amazon or your local bookstore.