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Rule 34 by Charles Stross

01/08/2012. Contributed by Aidan Fortune

Buy Rule 34 in the USA - or Buy Rule 34 in the UK

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pub: Orbit. 358 page enlarged paperback. Price: 12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-773-0).

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What starts as a domestic appliance fetish-related accident soon descends into a battle against a world of social control and a blossoming artificial intelligence.

DCI Liz Kavanaugh is in charge of Rule 34 Division, which investigates porn-related incidents and whose career is on the decline. She chances upon a case involving a washing machine and a former low-level felon which her gut instinct tells her that there is more to.
Also involved is the mysterious 'Toymaker' who stalks through Edinburgh city, looking to recruit morally bankrupt individuals for nefarious purposes. Unfortunately, these keep getting killed off before he can get to them, each in more embarrassing ways.

One of the names on the list that hasn't yet been bumped off is Anwar, a fairly inept criminal, struggling to balance religious beliefs, family life, his closeted sexuality and keeping clear of crime. Unable to do any of this properly, Anwar is convinced to take up the post of diplomatic consul to a newly-formed Eastern European country as part of a scam by an equally dodgy mate.

All three characters are set on a collision course that they're not really sure will end up and who or what else is working behind the scenes to control the game.

The author Charles Stross has created an alternative Edinburgh with constant surveillance and implant technology to allow immediate communication. Health and Safety regulations hamper police productivity and Internet usage is strictly monitored. Perhaps not so different.

Unfortunately, he hasn't got the balance of the story quite right. Chapters are broken up from each characters point of view but they're just not fleshed out enough to warrant this. While Edinburgh is Stross' home city, it's not exactly the right setting for the book, especially as it's already the home of some excellent detective novels, some of which are referred to within 'Rule 34'.

There's plenty about the world that DCI Kavanaugh lives in but the reason for her career decline is only partly explored in this novel. She was introduced in a previous Stross novel, 'Halting State', but for those who are new to the author's work, they may feel a little left out. Anwar gets the most rounded character arc but his lack of a backbone is unsatisfying.

I'm still not sure why the murders had to be fetish related and this may initially put some people off the book but it strangely doesn't really last. If your opening chapters involve Viagra-laced enemas then perhaps it may be best to keep it up and go for broke on the subject. Instead, Stross starts us off with some graphic visual images and pretty much just forgets about it. I'm not calling for hardcore scenes on every page but I think that the initial flurry of scenes would turn some away when all they have to do is battle on through to the next chapter.

I hate to be too critical so I'll end the review with the positives. It owes a lot to Doug Naylor of 'Red Dwarf' fame and has the same pacing and dialogue which is certainly no complaint. Once he gets going, Stross tees up the story quite nicely and introduces some big ideas to the book but it may be hard to look past the initial slow chapters.

I struggled to really enjoy 'Rule 34' and can't see myself recommending it to others. However, under the threat of being found dead with a copy of the book inserted where the sun doesn't shine, I'll encourage you to make up your own mind.

Aidan Fortune

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This book has 64 votes in the sci-fi charts

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