Rule 34 – If it exists, there is porn of it.
What happens when you take two steps into the future and combine web culture with spam, 3D printers, and one of the standard rules of the internet provided by the masses of 4chan? You’d find yourself in the middle of Charles Stross’s Rule 34, surrounded by augmented reality, sociopathic criminals, and some of the freakiest fetishes you can image.
I finished reading it about a week ago and have been processing my feelings about the book. It’s a good novel that offers a slant of a dawn of a cyberpunk time period. The mental gyration the book presents has you wondering what oddity is coming next while slipping more and more of the macro culture of this world into view. The novel is complex, folds over itself, and then breaks down its own walls to fab itself a spiraling ending.
The book is given to us in a slant of second person. It comes across at times as a first person novel in disguise, as if Stross used you instead of I, but it feels like second person done right. I’ll admit this was a hardship for me starting the novel. Second person isn’t a format I care for but Charles Stross does a good job with the story and after 3 or 4 chapters of adjustment I was on board with the style. I think what made it harder to grasp is that the book jumps characters chapter by chapter. Not knowing the characters’ voices during those early chapters was the issue. Once I became familiar with them, the second person narration worked itself out.
Internet culture steeped into reality is one of the key features of this book. Spam, social networks, and how our relationship with each other comes as a central theme. Any character in the story can be Kevin Bacon’ed to another through various channels. This becomes striking apparent at the half way point in the novel, when characters that seemed unrelated start revealing their relationships with various one-degree characters of our core cast.
This is now one of my favorite visions of the future to come. For one thing, it isn’t homogeneous. Some characters are deeper into the tech because they have to be for their career. Others are there for their interest as a hobby or past private occupation. Others do it for the money. The tech just oozes but it’s not outlandish. The 3D printers exist today so it’s not surprising for them to have more exotic materials and components. Spam filters and spam bots are becoming smarter. There’s a joke about someday the internet will become sentient. Applying that to spam and spam filters doesn’t sound so farfetched. There’s no crazy cyberware. There’s no direct neural interface net. There’s just high tech that’s rolled out of what we are already developing today.
WARNING SPOILER TERRIRTORY
The AI, as presented as a form of antagonist, is somewhat believable. Stross doesn’t present a consciousness as we think of in humanity. It’s a far more linear gray scale weighing variables type of intelligence. It’s a believable near future AI. The on the ground antagonist is interesting, but his place in the story is a little awkward. Toymaker is a bizarre sociopath with unique quirks and beliefs about staying off the grid, but his psychosis mixed with the constant failings at each turn in his arc left me wanting. He succeeds in a few small goals, cleaning up one loose end, getting his new ident setup, getting laid, but most of those either cause him more issues, or are just stupid for the level of intellect as presented for him. There feels like he should have had more especially earlier in the novel. His final take down and strange departure of the monitoring AI on him act as a sort of climax to the novel, but it doesn’t feel earned and it doesn’t feel like the actual end of this part of the story.
END SPOILER TERRITORY
Despite my hang ups I enjoyed the story, the characters, and the setting. The novel kept it focused on the characters while still giving up a world two steps into the future. I could see this reality happening in the coming decades.
The book manages to cover pretty much all the promises it makes. In truth we’re only seeing a part of the story; it’s really a side effect of a bigger picture and we’re getting the drippings. It’s better that way, though, as we’re kept to a certain level of darkness to the real “big world” events that caused the murders in the book. We don’t lose sight of character and the events that keep us attached. There was a chance here to do a political techno-thriller, but it doesn’t quite go behind fringe access. We don’t need to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.
I recommend this book on the grounds of a stunning two-steps into the future landscape, interesting character plots, and a chance to see second person done right. The book is a mystery with what might be considered a twist ending, but the clues and resolution can be figured out about half way through. We learn to feel for the various protagonists, their love and hate for their work, their family and relations, and their feelings of the world around them. It doesn’t come off as awkward for most of them, and I found myself relating to almost all of them.
I’m late getting the review of Rule 34 out, so here’s a bonus. A small review of Tee Morris’s Aladdin and His Wonderfully Infernal Device.
You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me!
Certain stories have the ability to slip off their old dresses and put on a new genre. It helps if they’re related, if the core story can be extracted without beheading the center of what makes the story work. Tee manages to do this with a retelling of one of the classic tales from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), Aladdin, in his short story Aladdin and His Wonderfully Infernal Device
I’ve been a fan of Tee’s since listening to Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword, and I was glad to make last year’s Pheonix Rising the first steampunk novel I’ve read. Aladdin and His Wonderfully Infernal Device continues Tee’s work into steampunk and weird tech of an age that never was. It’s a wonderful retelling of the Aladdin story, slipping in steam tech in replacement of much of the magic from the story.
Despite this, the story doesn’t lose any sense of wonder or the mystical nature of the hunt for the lamp. This isn’t to say there isn’t magic. Avoiding spoilers, but there is a certain level of high tech that crosses the border into magic to the Victorian area perspective we’ve read into. In another story, this would be jarring, perhaps even story breaking, but we’re familiar with the ultimate cosmic power of the genie of the lamp. When the construct of the lamp has great transformative and manipulative powers we accept it and keep moving on with the story.
The story does have a sense of the Disney Aladdin feel, and that may be because of the section of the Aladdin story covered. It could easily have continued on through the story, using a modified personal rotocopter for two for a night time flight, the return of the evil magician, etc. Instead it ends at a good point before it gets too long of mimicking the original piece. There’s enough of the original there to recognize but it’s not a word for word scene for scene copy with added steam punk. It stands on it’s own, and because of that mixed with the fun of the story it comes of as a good piece.
I recommend this short story on the grounds as a good introduction to non-London based steampunk. Steam punk is an ever growing sub-genre, but often too much of it takes place in one great city. Seeing works like this stretching the walls of what is steampunk will lead to the growth the theme needs. If you do end up enjoying this piece, I highly recommend you check out Tee’s book Pheonix Rising, co-authored with his wife Philippa Ballitine, which I previously reviewed. Both are good introductions to steampunk, and combined with the tales of the ministry short story collection make for fantastic examples of the Steampunk setting.