Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. It’s always interesting when a novel crosses genre lines, so that it has elements of both crime fiction and another sort of fiction. Charles Stross’ Rule 34 is that sort of novel. It’s a crime novel; at the same time, it’s speculative fiction as well. Let’s take a look at the way that sort of novel works today, and put Rule 34 in the spotlight.
The novel begins as the Edinburgh police are alerted to a brutal murder. DI Liz Cavanaugh happens to be available at the time, and she goes to the scene. The victim is former prisoner and Internet spammer Michael Blair. This isn’t the first time Kavanaugh’s come across Blair. She’s the head of the Innovative Crimes Investigation Team, that’s responsible for searching out potential crime on the Internet. They’re also known as the ‘Rule 34 Squad’ The team gets its name from the Internet meme:
‘If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions.’
Their job is mostly to weed out harmless online fantasy from crime, and it’s hardly a plum position. In fact, Kavanaugh was assigned there as a punishment for getting on the wrong side of a ‘turf war’ five years earlier. But now, the unit’s fully involved in this murder investigation.
In the meantime, we are introduced to ex-con Anwar Hussein, who’s been making a sort of living as an identity thief. Through one of his contacts, he gets the opportunity to ‘go legit.’ It seems that the newly-formed Central Asian nation of Issyk-Kulistan needs a consul in Edinburgh. The work’s easy; and, although it seems too good to be true (Anwar is no fool), it’s a way for him to take care of his family. It’s work of which his wife will approve, too, which makes things that much easier. Anwar starts his new job, and all’s well at first. But then, odd things start happening, and he begins to wonder just what this new consul is actually doing.
The third main character we meet is called the Toymaker. He’s the enforcer for a shadowy criminal group known as the Organization, and richly enjoys the ‘enforcement’ part of his work. He’s used to staying ‘off the grid,’ and has various identities.
Soon enough, Blair’s death is connected with other, equally brutal, murders that have occurred in other countries. The only common thread seems to be that all of the victims were online scammers. As Kavanaugh and her team work to identify the killer, her story and those of Anwar and of the Toymaker are woven together. And she finds that the truth about these murders is much bigger and more dangerous than she’d imagined.
This is speculative fiction. The story takes place in the near future, so the Edinburgh of the novel will likely be familiar to those who know the city. Still, there’s technology we don’t currently have, world groups that don’t exist (or don’t yet), and so on. It’s speculative in other ways, too. For instance, Stross has a lot to say about what the future of the Internet might be like. There’s a speculative political element to this novel as well. There’s a very fine line between contemplating such questions, and pushing an agenda. And that line’s different for each reader. Readers will want to decide for themselves whether Stross crosses that line. Those issues are certainly important in the novel; and, like most speculative fiction, the story offers the reader ‘food for thought.’
For the most part, the novel follows Kavanaugh, Hussein, and the Toymaker. So we learn about each of their characters. Kavanaugh is trying to make the most of a bad situation. She’s gotten burned by police and other politics, so she’s become cynical. She’s also seen enough professionally that she’s developed a thick hide. At the same time, she’s human. She’s hurt at the way she’s been treated, and the murders she investigate certainly take their toll on her.
For his part, Hussein is trying to make a life for himself and his family in a culture that’s very different to his own. As he makes clear, he was born in Edinburgh; he is Scottish. He and his wife are also Muslim, though, and sometimes, the two worlds don’t exactly mesh:
‘To be a Muslim living in Scotland is to be confronted by an existential paradox, insofar as Scotland has pubs the way Alabama has Baptist churches. Everyone worships at the house of the tall fount, and it’s not just about drinking (although a lot of that goes on).’
Hussein straddles both communities the best he can, and has become quite pragmatic about it.
And then there’s the Toymaker. He is brilliant and enigmatic, as well as quite vicious. He’s intolerant of any lapses on anyone’s part. He is also arrogant, which makes him vulnerable. It’s not spoiling the story to say that, without him even being aware of it, he’s being manipulated just as much as anyone else is.
The story is told, for the most part, in second person. Readers who are accustomed to third person (or, occasionally, first person) will notice this right away. A great deal of it is also told in present tense. Here, for instance, is a bit from Kavanaugh’s perspective:
‘You are indeed late home for your tea, as it happens – and never mind the other appointment. Michael Blair, esq, has shafted you from beyond the – well, not the grave, at least not yet: But you don’t need to mix the metaphor to drink the cocktail, however bitter. So you’re having a bad hair day at the office tomorrow, and never mind the overtime.’
Readers who prefer the more traditional past tense will notice this.
There is violence, some of it ugly, as well as other explicitness. Readers who prefer their novels to be low on violence, profanity and so on will notice this. That said, though, Stross doesn’t glory in it all.
Oh, and one final note is in order about the cover. I don’t usually mention book covers, but the cover of the hardback edition of the novel (that’s the edition I read) has, at least in my opinion, almost nothing to do with the actual plot. Just saying…
Rule 34 is a speculative novel that brings up some important questions about where the Internet, the world community, and politics are leading us. It has a distinctive Edinburgh setting, and features a group of disparate people who are drawn into something far greater than they supposed. But what’s your view? Have you read Rule 34? If so, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 28 November/Tuesday, 29 November – The Secret River – Kate Grenville
Monday, 5 December/Tuesday, 6 December – The Rim of the Pit – Hake Talbot
Monday, 12 December/Tuesday, 13 December – Cop Town – Karin Slaughter