Rule 34 — Charlie Stross

Cover of Rule 34

Rule 34
Charlie Stross
358 pages
published in 2011

It’s only thanks to Christopher Priest’s tirade about this year’s Clarke Award shortlist that you remember that you haven’t reviewed Charlie Stross latest novel, Rule 34 yet. You know that, like Halting State, which it is a sequel to, it’s written in the second person and you briefly toy with the idea to write your review the same way. But then you come to your senses and decide to write the rest of the review in a less irritating way.

Not that I minded the second person point of view in Rule 34, as Charlie Stross made it work and it fit the central metaphor of these books, reality as a massive multiplayer immersive game. At the same time I can see where Christopher Priest is coming from when he writes:

Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long. You wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet.

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Whether you’re annoyed or amused by Christopher Priest’s broadside against the Clarke Award shortlist depends on how you rate the writers he attacked. For me, it was a mixed bag. On the one hand I loved his description of Sheri “genocide is too a proper tool for solving ecological problem” Tepper’s The Waters Rising:

how can one describe it? For fuck’s sake, it is a quest saga and it has a talking horse. There are puns on the word ‘neigh’.

Which is nicely hateful to a deserving target. But how to take his judgement of Charlie Stross:

Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long. You wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet.

Charlie decided to take it as a joke and brought out a line of t-shirts to celebrate. Which is probably the best attitude to take as writer. Now you may know that I’m a bit of a Stross fan myself, but I can still see where Priest is coming from. Charlie can be quite enthusiastic about some very geeky things and if you don’t share those interests this might just be a bit wearing at novel length. But this is a question of taste more than of worth. Nobody can like every science fiction novel ever written and unless you want to argue that nobody should write novels like Rule 34, this isn’t a legitimate complaint.

His complaints about “PC Plod characters” and “och-aye dialogue” are more factual, but I find both of them unjustified. If you write a police procedural you’re bound to have coppers while Charlie has lived north of the border long enough to have a good ear for proper Scottish accents; he’s certainly no worse than a true Scotsman like Ian Rankin.

Meanwhile what Charlie Stross has tried to do with Rule 34 and in which for me at least he succeeded for the most part is to write a believable, proper near future science fiction thriller, in a future that we could actually be living in a few years from now. So for example there’s the subplot of exactly what a small time crook is creating with his illegal three-d printer/matter fab: creating highly realistic sex doll facsimiles of five year old girls for pedophiles. That is something you wouldn’t really imagine as an element of your standard near future setting, but you wouldn’t be surprised to be reading about in the newspaper in a decade or so.

So whether or not Rule 34 was the best sf novel published in Britain last year, it is a credible candidate and Priest’s irritation with Charlie’s writing style blinds him to this. Remains to argue why Priest wrote this attack in the first place, which is probably not, as Damien G. Walter wants to argue a belated jealousy of J. G. Ballard. More likely it’s just general irritation with a shortlist that ignores several worthy candidates for far weaker ones, expressed more strongly than other people might’ve done.

What should’ve been the Rule 34 cover blurb

From the humongous NotWMurdoch hacking scandal tread on Blood & Tresure comes this gem of a description of Charlie Stross’s Rule 34 courtesy of ajay:

A book of the same title has just been published – it’s by Charlie Stross and is basically ((“Ken MacLeod” – “explanations of Trotskyite splinter groups”) + (“Christopher Brookmyre” – “comedy violence”) * (“Ian Rankin” – (“jazz” + “whisky”)) + (“Cory Doctorow” – “inability to create convincing characters or dialogue)).

(Though I’d put “Rolling Stones albums” rather than jazz for Ian Rankin.)

Outer space linkage

Some quick links to interesting stuff today that don’t need their own post. First up, the annual Strange Horizons fund drive. Strange Horizons is an excellent science fiction/fantasy site, publishing fiction, poetry, reviews, etcetera, with the staff all volunteers but with paid contributors. I use the site quite a lot when doing science fiction or fantasy reviews for the booklog, as their reviewers usually have their heads screwed up straight and I’m always curious to see what they think of the book I’m reviewing.

The Guardian has an interview with noted science fiction writer and friend of the blog Charlie Stross, in which the following quote jumped out at me:

“Many science fiction writers are literary autodidacts who focus on the genre primarily as a literature of ideas, rather than as a pure art form or a tool for the introspective examination of the human condition,” he says. “I’m not entirely at ease with that self-description.” But with a background in biomedical and computer science rather than literature, his fiction always returns to science. “I just can’t help myself,” he explains. “I have a compulsive urge to use that background to build baroque laboratory mazes for my protagonists to explore, rather than being
content to examine them in their native habitat.”

That one paragraph explains so much about Charlie’s books.

Way back in February, Brad Hicks blogged about a Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s live action science fiction series. No, not Space:1999, but UFO. When he described it, it sounded like it had provided a lot of the inspiration for the only computer game that ever gave me nightmares: UFO: Enemy Unknown (or X-Com 1 as it was also known), which I played a lot in
the mid-nineties. Finally having tracked down the DVD set of the series myself and watched the first episode, it does remind me a lot of X-Com. Of course, it’s quite dated, as it’s a 1969 idea of what the far flung future of 1980 would look like, full with men in Nehru suits smoking and drinking in the office while purple wigged women in silver miniskirts watched out for ufos on the moon, while their counterparts on earth wore tight jumpsuits, which showed cameltoe could be a problem in the future as well…


Charlie Stross is a hacker (in the respectable sense of the word), computer journalist, weblogger and science fiction writer. It’s because of the latter he just fried my brain. If Neal Stephenson was the Bruce Sterling of the nineties, Charlie is the Neal Stephenson of the noughties.

You see, Charlie’s short story Lobsters has been nominated for the 2002 short story Hugo Awards which inspired Asimovs to put it online. Charlie linked to it in his weblog as a bit of shameless self promotion, so I read the story during my lunch break.


That was … weird. Weird and dense and wonderful. Exhilirating in a way I only get from good science fiction, the sort of science fiction where you actually feel your neural pathways expanding because the writer is throwing so much new stuff at you, the sort of science fiction that gives you a bigger sugar buzz then a crate of Jolt cola, the sort of science fiction that leaves you bouncing new ideas of the edge of your cranium.

Not bad at all.