Hourglasses on the page – Charles Stross’s Rule 34

Charlie Stross’s latest, Rule 34, is a fast-paced, discombobulating read. Its near future setting is just in the corner of the reader’s eye though it provides no fixes. There is scant comfort, outside of the brief meetings where the edges of each story collides.

In the strange IT crimes unit, Liz begins investigating a fetishistic sex crime which makes no sense. Her friend, Dorothy, is a corporate psychologist who comes into contact with the Toymaker as the seemingly unconnected shows it to be a deeper sense of togetherness.

Kemal, recently released from prison, is on licence. As a Muslim he shouldn’t be drinking but the Gnome is persuasive which is how he ends up as the consul for a newly created shell state for Kyrgistan. Despite his job, he cannot tell his wife and, for some reason, there is a lot of bread mix.

In the middle of this is the Toymaker, a fixer trying to organise a Gangster 2.0 takeover plan. The problem is that the two new executives appear to be dead before they can be hired.

Sf, at some points, understands this world in ways that the fiction cannot. It slides under the skin and teases out the wires. In some senses it looks at the knitted world of stories and connections that come as and when with globalisation. The macro comes together with the micro as the human stories intersect with the machine’s story. In an essay on Paul Auster’s Leviathan, Kevin Jackson comments that the ‘world remains mysterious, resistant to commentary and narrative’ (p 145)1. Sf as a genre, in particular ‘post-cyberpunk’ and Singularity authors, gleefully render this untrue and they see changing technological narratives of the world.

The Singularity, which may or may not happen, becomes a powerful way of describing this unevenly distributed future. As the Toymaker emerges as the sentient AI that is discovered to be at the centre of the apparent chaos, attempting to write the world in its own image, it tries to see the world in its own way. Its amorality, echoing the recent use of technology in finance, might have been a rueful exploration of a world which is being rushed towards with very little thought about what it might mean for the human inhabitants. Ian McDonald, in one strand of The Dervish House, does explore this in the takeover bid which goes fantastically wrong for the company but explores what it means for the traders involved, who merely move on the next market. Stross does not quite go this far which is slightly frustrating. For Stross, it is the technology, not the people who march onwards.

Despite these reservations, Rule 34 is a thought provoking novel and fast paced. Its mixture of crime and sf sits easily with the narrative. I would have preferred one that stretched itself a little further in its human considerations.

1 The Good of the Novel, Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan (eds) (Faber and Faber, London, 2011)

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