Charlie Stross's latest technothriller, Rule 34, is a savvy, funny, viciously inventive science fiction novel that combines police procedure with the dark side of nerd culture to produce a grotesque and gripping page-turner.
Liz is an Edinburgh police detective on the "Rule 34" squad; she works with a loose network of European cops to track down weird Internet memes before people start trying to imitate them in real life. It's a quirky, dead-end kind of job — but then, Liz's policing career is both quirky and headed for a dead-end.
Until, that is, someone starts murdering spammers. All around the world, spammers begin to drop in the most disgusting, rococo ways; one died after having a murderous cocktail of badly-interacting drugs (including Viagra) slipped into his recreational enema machine, itself a Soviet relic once owned by Nicolae Ceausescu. The rest go in even less pleasant ways.
And suddenly, the Rule 34 squad is at the center of one of the weirdest murder sprees the world's ever seen.
Stross's best trick is moving past a kind of funny high-concept premise to something much more substantive and weirdly plausible. What starts off as a novel about dirty murders quickly turns into a spectacular rumination on the future of economic regulation and corporate ethics, the nature of AI research, and the special problems of desktop 3D fabrication (as applied to religious faith, domestic chores, and forbidden sexual practices — sometimes all at once).
As with Charlie's previous novel in this milieu, Halting State, Rule 34 shines as a super-smart futuristic exercise in public policing. Stross's future cops are both victims and employers of a surveillance panopticon, one tempered by thick eurocrat regulation and adaptive criminals. These cops aren't just legal enforcers, they're part of a high-tech, evidence-led, scientifically grounded security strategy that has been refactored to render policing as bloodless and procedural as possible, to deploy genuine science against the cop's vaunted street instincts, and to nudge bad guys into going good before they do something arrest-worthy.
This is my favorite kind of science fiction: rigorous, playful, and challenging.