Rule 34 by Charles Stross

Orbit, 2011, 358p.

Set in the 2020s, Rule 34 is a sequel of sorts to Halting State, and features DI Liz Kavanaugh, career now shunted off course by events some years ago and in charge of the unit which trawls the Internet for cybercrime of various sorts. Most of the action takes place in Edinburgh, though there are diversions to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, and the newly independent Republic of Issyk-Kulistan. The notion of a sock puppet country is an amusing one, if alarming given the referendum due to take place in Scotland next year.

The novel has a succession of viewpoint characters, most of them rendered in the second person to lend a sense of immediacy and pace. Until things are drawn together towards the end these multiple viewpoints seem too many but of course they are connected. In a novel dominated by unseen presences how could it be otherwise? There is some musing on the possibilities of recognising artificial intelligence when it occurs and on the relative uselessness of the Turing Test.

This world of driverless vehicles is perhaps a little too implausible so near to the present but overhead surveillance drones are not and illegal fabbers in garden sheds is a nice touch. However the hazards of writing near future SF are illustrated here by the fact that DI Kavanaugh is a member of Lothian and Borders Police Force. All Scotland’s police areas are, at the moment, in 2013, in the process of being amalgamated into one.

The quote from Christopher Brookmyre on the cover is appropriate as Rule 34 inhabits a similar sort of milieu to Brookmyre’s œuvre, especially his Angelique De Xavia books, though Stross does not essay quite as much humour.

In a thriller it is plot that is important, and Stross gives us this in spades. Rule 34 was a Clarke Award nominee last year.

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