I never got around to posting this immediately after I finished reading Rule 34, so my reminiscing is going to be somewhat hazy, but I feel I ought to have a go as it was a damn good book.
I’ve read some Stross before (Laundry series) and really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to Rule 34… and kind of expecting it to be more of the same. I was rather incorrect. I was also incorrect in what I thought it would be based on the title. I was expecting silly and very internet-meme-heavy, jokey and light, like the Laundry books. It really, really isn’t. I mean, it’s not deathly serious either, but it’s rather darker and more like crime fiction than one might expect.
My interest/knowledge of crime fiction is incredibly patchy, I have to say. I like Sherlock Holmes, and beyond that, I have dabbled at best. It’s part of the reason I think I didn’t get on with The City and the City, for instance, and I suspect it has had an effect on my enjoyment of Rule 34. I liked Rule 34… I liked it a lot… but I didn’t love it, and I think that’s because I’m just not a crime fiction person (Sherlock Holmes aside… I love Sherlock Holmes… you have no idea). Just like I’m not very good at reading hard SF (shut up, I’ll finish the Reality Dysfunction eventually), I’m just not good at thinking about crime fiction in a critical light. On tv, hell yeah. But in books? Really not so much.
Basic stuff – the characters… are mixed at best. He doesn’t suffer from Miéville-itis, where all characters are flat and featureless and almost inhuman… but they’re not exactly compelling either. Inspector Kavanaugh is the best of the bunch. She gets the most thought-time and the most believable motives. The Toy-Maker is great to read… but you can’t really get into his mind in a way you’d want. Or maybe you wouldn’t… (spoilers). What makes the characterisation weird, at least for me, is the choice to tell the story in the second person. It’s very unusual, and I’m just not used to dealing with it. It ought to make it easier to get into the minds of the characters than the usual third person stuff, but somehow it doesn’t. Well… it kind of does with Anwar, the third viewpoint character, but not so much with the other two, at least for me.
The plot… it’s one of those multi-character books where everything sort of pulls together after a while. And though the pulling together is pretty cool and awesome, it gets done over such a short space of pages that I got left feeling quite confused as to how the story really ended. Though that may be partly down to the excessive computer jargon. I’m not completely computer illiterate, but I was struggling, I have to say. Stross is writing near-future realistic SF here, and he knows his stuff on the computer side, so it leaves anyone without a deeper knowledge of computing than a passing acquaintance with the internet… a bit stumped. That said, it doesn’t really impede the plot progression. I don’t have to understand the near-future CompSci-isms to get how they relate to the plot, which is really, really good. Oh and there’s some economics I didn’t understand too, but that didn’t really get in the way either. So it’s ok.
The world he builds, as I say, is a near-future one. It’s not exactly a dystopia, but Stross doesn’t seem to be much of an optimist, as far as I can tell from Rule 34. Admittedly, we’re viewing it about a third from the perspective of a police officer, so it’s not likely to be a rosy view of the upper echelons of society, but even taking that into account, there’s a sort of grimy, cynical edge to the Edinburgh he paints. And that really works for the book, but it’s kind of depressing when you start to think about it on its own. I don’t want to live in Stross’ near future, but I worry that I might. And that’s not really what I want from my fiction. I prefer cheerful escapism to thought-provoking warnings of the downward slide of society.
I sound really down about Rule 34 now, which is totally unfair. I very much enjoyed it. I just struggled near the end to keep up, once the pace picked up, and there was quite a bit sprinkled all the way through that I just didn’t understand. As a piece of fiction, it is totally recommend-worthy, especially to people more scientifically knowledgeable than I. It’s also certainly more objectively good than a lot of the things I rant happily about. But I don’t really love it, and I’m not certain I’d read it again (though it hasn’t done anything to my opinion of Stross as an author, as the Laundry books prove he can do something much more accessible). All in all, mixed feelings. It is a damn good book, and I did enjoy it… but I’m pretty certain I am nowhere near the target market.