You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rule 34

Rule 34 is a science fiction novel by Charles Stross that takes place in the near future. The use of 3D printers has become popular, and there is a dark underworld market of unlicensed or illegal blueprints for obscene or immoral creations. Liz is a detective with the Edinburgh police in charge of a task force that monitors the Internet for fantasies that cross the line into forbidden acts. Police work is aided by constant monitoring, a smart online repository for data called CopSpace, and semi-intelligent bots that can do minor police processing. Liz is called to check on a suspicious death and quickly determines that it must be a homicide. The man was found in the bathroom with an enema machine that malfunctioned and somehow poisoned him.

Anwar is a Muslim ex-con trying to make a living in Edinburgh to support his wife and kids. Unfortunately due to his conviction he is prevented from doing any computer work online. He meets with his friend called the Gnome, who gets him involved in a questionable position as an honorary consul for a breakway republic in central Asia. The Gnome insists that there is an angle where they will be able to profit from his position, but the only activity Anwar finds is a case of bread mix that might be used to turn into an illegal industrial product with the right secret ingredient and process. Anwar is a type common to crime novels; he is a common criminal who aspires to the big time, but he is really more of a mark than a con man. Whatever scam he gets involved in ends up getting the better of him.

One mysterious character is referred to as the Toymaker; he uses the alias John Christie, which happens to be the name of a long-dead serial killer. Christie is a sociopath with paranoid delusions that barely kept at bay by the medication he takes. He arrives in Edinburgh to set up a local franchise of the sort of business that Liz would be interested in investigating. However he is stymied by the fact that the first potential business associate he goes to meet is the man who was killed by his enema machine, and the second woman he visits is dead and shrink-wrapped to a mattress full of outdated banknotes. Christie has to manage to not cross the line into insanity while dealing with these setbacks.

Liz finds another suspicious death in Germany that she thinks may be related, and soon many other deaths come to light in the same time frame that are all connected by the fact that home appliance software has malfunctioned in a very specific way. The question comes up of whether these deaths, assuming they are indeed all connected and directed, have behind them a human directing them or an AI. Computer systems have become very sophisticated, though they have only so far only excelled at specific tasks such as driving a car or recognizing a human face.

What's most interesting about this novel is the fast-paced, dense language that Stross uses. There is a bit of Scottish dialect, and I was afraid it was going to be distracted, but thankfully he finds the right balance. The language is full of in-jokes and references that many readers may not appreciate, but I think Stross really knows his audience and hits the right notes. I think I got about 99% of the references, and the important stuff is explained. There are several lines of the plot going, including the central Asian republic's plot to double-cross the investment bankers intending to short its bonds; Liz's ex-lover Dorothy arriving in town to do an audit; and Anwar's job checking out malware for his brother-in-law. There's enough going that you can't tell which is driving the plot and which is just an interesting tangent. In the end, most of it manages to pull together and make sense, though the ending feels just a bit rushed. It's still a fun ride. B+

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