The novel “Rule 34” by Charles Stross was published for the first time in 2011. It’s the sequel to “Halting State“.
Year 2023. Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh is called to the scene of a death that happened during a very peculiar sexual practice. Apparently, it’s an accident but soon the investigation lead to the suspicion that it’s actually a murder. When Liz finds out that in Germany and Italy other crimes occurred in similar circumstances, the investigation turns high profile.
Anwar Hussein is on probation and struggling to find an honest job. Thanks to a contact, he becomes the honorary console of the independent Republic of Issik-Kulistan, born shortly after a referendum declared its secession from Kyrgyzstan. The job seems easy but Anwar understands that there’s a catch, but what exactly?
The Toymaker is in Edinburgh to carry out the Operation but is having some issues. At the hotel where he’s sleeping they lost his suitcase and he ran out of his medications with repercussions on his mental stability. It doesn’t help that he discovered that someone is killing the candidates to become part of the Operation.
The title refers to one of the Internet memes which states that if you can think of it there’s porn of it. Despite this title, “Rule 34” is not a porn novel, though there are very explicit moments that make it more suitable for adult readers.
“Rule 34” takes place about five years after “Halting State” but only a few characters from the first novel are also present in the second one. The story is completely independent from the previous one and some of the dynamics between the returning characters are explained in “Rule 34” so you don’t need to read “Halting State” first. However, considering the value of the first novel, the best thing is to get that too.
“Rule 34” shares with “Halting State” the distinction of being narrated in the second person singular. This choice has created some difficulties for some readers but is suitable for these stories set in a future where the use of virtual reality or at least augmented has become normal and people are acting through an avatar.
In “Halting State” the main topic were online games, in “Rule 34” instead the story focuses on international spammer networks. Charles Stross outlines a possible evolution of the spamming techniques over the next decade, connecting them in this novel to international political and economic maneuvers.
The story takes place mainly in Edinburgh but is connected to the events in Kyrgyzstan and in the the nearby Independent Republic of Issik Kulistan. The main characters are in Scotland and the narrative proceeds mainly alternating the points of view of Liz, Anwar and the Toymaker but occasionally follows the point of view of other characters, sometimes in other parts of the world.
“Rule 34” is told through the expertise that Charles Stross already showed in the computer science field and this is logical considering that the author worked in the field of programming. Therefore, even though the novel is set just a decade into the future, the technological development is an integral part of the story, particularly concerning police work.
The fact that “Rule 34” is basically a high-tech detective story doesn’t mean that the characters are not developed. On the contrary, Charles Stross continues the development of the characters who appeared in “Halting State” and at the same time develops the new ones, sometimes maybe even too much. The story of the Toymaker is in fact narrated in detail with flashbacks that go back to his childhood. It’s a matter of taste: personally, it wasn’t what I was looking for in this novel but I understand that for some readers this choice might be a good thing instead.
Charles Stross is also known for the humor he puts in his stories. In “Rule 34” there are some very special ways used to kill and there’s also a reference to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is often mentioned on the Internet and is generally known to Reddit readers.
Defining “Rule 34” as cyberpunk would be very simplistic in my opinion. There are certainly some elements typical of that genre but Charles Stross developed his stories of the near future in a very personal way.
To me, “Rule 34” doesn’t seem at the same level as “Halting State”, mainly because the story takes a lot to be developed. The first part, which occupies about half of the novel, is essentially used to lay the foundations of the various subplots whoch in the second half finally start converging. Only then, the pace of the story becomes quite fast so for someone so the first part may be too slow.
Despite some flaws, in my opinion, “Rule 34” is a really good novel and requires less computer skills to be appreciated than “Halting State”, which is really geek instead. “Rule 34” is more enjoyable too for readers who have knowledge in this field and if you like the genre I recommend reading it.