Liz Kavanaugh, Edinburgh police inspector and heroine of "Rule 34," leads the Internet Crime Investigation Unit (ICIU) of the Lothian and Borders Police. The ICIU monitors the web for memes that trigger criminal behavior. Many such memes are pornographic, hence the title of the book. (Rule 34 is a tongue-in-cheek law of the Internet: if it exists, there is porn of it.)
Through happenstance Kavanaugh finds herself involved in the investigation of a gruesome murder. A character the book calls Toymaker, a prominent member of an international crime syndicate, rings the bell to call on the victim during the investigation. Hegives a false name to the police, who take a DNA sample and allow him to leave. To obtain new identity papers, the Toymaker goes to Anwar Hussein, former convict and honorary consul of a Central Asian country. Stross tells the story by shifting between the points of view of Kavanaugh, the Toymaker, and Hussein.
Point-of-view problems may vex the reader. The first sentence of the novel reads, "It's a slow Tuesday afternoon, and you're coming to the end of your shift on the West End control desk when Sergeant McDougall IMs you: INSPECTOR WANTED ON FATACC SCENE." Yes, Stross wrote the book in second person.
Second-person narration in literature is older than Modern English. John Lydgate used the technique in the early fifteenth century. Like most writers who have experimented with second-person narratives, Lydgate tried it out only once. "Rule 34" is Stross's second novel written from the second-person point of view.
The first sentence of the novel also highlights the jargon problem. FATACC is UK police radio-speak for fatal accident. I'm an American, and the term was new to me, but I guessed it correctly. Other technical terms in the novel are less clear. Although Stross sets the novel a decade in thefuture, he grounds it in current tech, so I was able to find unfamiliar terms and acronyms on the Internet. I might even have learned something from this book.
Stross roots the novel firmly in the science fiction genre. No swords. No mystical forces. No magic. The near-future setting allows Stross to write about how current events and technology may play out in the near term. William Gibson's latest trilogy, ("Pattern Recognition," "Spook Country," and "Zero History") does science fiction with technology available now. Stross's latest book looks just a little bit further down the road.
"Rule 34" is a sequel to Stross's earlier success "Halting State." This new book is a sequel only in the sense that the action takes place in the same setting five years after the events of the first book. The novels have a few characters in common, but the second book does not continue the story in the first. Thus, if you read "Rule 34" without having read "Halting State," you won't at any time think you’re missing something that might add to your enjoyment of the book.
Prospective readers need to hear a word of caution. "Rule 34" contains descriptions of Internet memes, scenes, and situations that are NSFEC (Not Safe For Expertscolumn). A decorous review can't fill you in about details that some readers might find disturbing, prurient or shocking. Readers who like some intelligent speculation in their thrillers (and perhaps those looking for a bracing shock from material they consider prurient) will enjoy "Rule 34."