“You – That Is To Say, Me”: Charles Stross’s “Rule 34”

ACCA-nominated juvenalia

It will surely be impossible to discuss this year’s shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award without now referring to Christopher Priest. Not, alas, because his The Islanders made the shortlist – but because it didn’t, and because he’s mad about it. In his defense, he is also mad that  Dead Water, Osama, By Light Alone and Wake Up And Dream didn’t make the final cut, either. I’ve read the first three of these, and whilst I’m far from certain that Dead Water can usefully be classified as SF, the other two novels are muscular and inventive works that I’m disappointed not to see pushed towards a larger audience.

Indeed, on that basis I was initially rather sympathetic towards Priest’s invective – in particular, his characterisation of Charlie Stross as an “internet puppy” agreed in large part with my previous experience of his writing. Accelerando, for instance, seemed to me hyperactive and super-attenuated, which may have been the point but which was also thoroughly dispiriting. If my reading of Embassytown was significantly more positive than Priest’s, I expected very much to agree with his opinion of Stross’s Rule 34.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Stross proved entirely worthy of his place on the shortlist.

Priest’s primary – and apparently solitary – objection to Stross is that he is juvenile. That Charlie chose to respond to this criticism by creating a slangy t-shirt has probably enranged Priest yet further, but it is a fitting riposte to what is itself a pretty juvenile brickbat: Rule 34 is written in what might on the surface appear to be a lazy, second-person vernacular, but in no small part this is because it depicts a lazy, second-person vernacular world. Set around 2030, and spending much of its time following the deflationary ripples of 2008, Stross’s future is here one of interconnected surveillance. To avoid being eavesdropped upon, the inhabitants of this future must remove the batteries from their phones and check that the cameras over the bar are far enough away to exclude lip-readers. His ‘cop’ characters – ostensibly Rule 34 is a whodunnit – exist in “a coccoon of augmented reality” [pg. 4], recording a ‘lifelog’, a real-time document of their every professional moment. The ‘robber’ characters are enmeshed in a palimpsest of plots and counter-plots, most of them relating to national debt, which all ultimately lead back to nudge theory and the necessity of electronic oversight for increasingly complex societies: “the project of law,” declares a professor of ‘automated social engineering’ towards the end of the book, “ever since the Code of Hammurabi – the entire idea that we can maintain social order by obtaining voluntary adherence to a code of permissible behaviour, under threat of retribution – is fundamentally misguided.” [pg. 287]

All this plays with the concept of the panopticon singularity, an idea with which Stross has been playing for a decade or more. “Privacy is a peculiarly twentieth-century concept, an artefact of the Western urban middle classes,” he writes [pg. 93]. Whether his book is dealing with a Detective Inspector, a minor hoodlum, or an agent of a shadowy inter-continental conspiracy, the reader is addressed directly: the second-person present tense rarely breaks down into first-person, and though structurally the book creaks occasionally – particularly in the ‘interlude’ passages, it’s clear that Stross cannot quite contain his story within the limits he has attempted to impose – Rule 34 achieves not so much an immersive effect as one of complicity. All the characters become avatars for the reader, and we watch them as if observing the CCTV footage of our other lives. It is a curious technique, simultaneously inclusive and distancing, which becomes more and more fitting a style the further one proceeds into the novel. Indeed, not all of this surveillance is bad – in light of today’s news, for instance, the sensitivity of Stross’s police officers to the fact that they are constantly monitored seems salutary. This is a complex world. There are lapses – Stross’s sneer at decades of public policy directives aimed at pub drinkers (“the real problem drinkers weren’t in the pubs in the first place” [pg. 285]) has arguably been answered within weeks rather than decades by yet another poor piece of public policy – but by and large, and unlike many similar attempts to envision our near future, Stross’s feels eerily credible.

What Stross has done – and it is something he has always attempted, but which he seems finally to have achieved by adopting precisely the sort of Brookmyre-esque rough vernacular to which Priest seems to object  – is to present an extrapolation of our current, intermittently interconnected world, and show how social networks themselves could become connected with aspects of our lives from which they are apparently divorced: law, statehood, morality. That he achieves this within the context of one of the finest fictional responses to the 2008 crash I have yet read is doubly remarkable. His Operation, for instance, sits at the centre of many of the novel’s strands, but is essentially a neo-Thatcherite attempt to revive for a world more interested in corporate oversight the rapacious culture of pre-2008: “In our world of unregulated free-market enterprise there is no “society” to off-load business externalities like insurance onto, no courts to settle disputes equitably, and no presumption of goodwill.” [pg. 36] It is precisely this inability of human morality to meet the demands of complex 21st-century societies – the Operation deliberately employs psychopaths – that seems to Stross to make inevitable the rise of the panopticon.

All this is cut-to-the-bone stuff. In Stross’s future, states allow constituent elements of their post-national make-ups – Scotland in the UK, Issyk-Kulistan in Kyrgyzstan- to secede to one extent or another (Stross presumes devo-max for the Caledonians); but they do so in cases such as the latter’s merely to off-load omnipresent debt via credit default swaps which will become worthless upon the inevitable, and planned, re-absorption of the region back into the wider state. “They can’t do that!” exclaims the perennially confused Anwar, the Muslim hoodlum who becomes in many ways the novel’s most sympathetic character. “Isn’t that what made the banks collapse?” [pg. 192]  Warren Ellis, with whom Stross is often compared, recently tweeted, “If contemporary literary fiction doesn’t read a bit like science fiction then it’s probably not all that contemporary, is it?” This goes much too far, but it is nevertheless in precisely this way that Rule 34 is an important novel for our times.

Indeed, in many ways Rule 34 reads like Zoo City, last year’s winner: a hardboiled, subversive caper of a thriller, all page-turning energy and pop cultural smarts. It isn’t perhaps quite as alive to the wider world as Beukes’s novel – there’s a sense in which Stross knows so clearly what Rule 34 is about that his novel doesn’t tremble when it hits against other concerns, except to deliver one of Stross’s strident opinions (for instance, he’s despairing of “the chill wind [… blowing] through the halls of academia” [pg. 281]) – and it relies rather heavily on a final infodump, in a manner which reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (which was rather derided by critics within the genre for precisely that fault). There are also clumsy sentences and occasionally stilted dialogue. It may be, then, that Rule 34 is not so well-placed as that earlier novel to take the prize; at the same time, I suspect it is a rather strong contender. I am as surprised as Christoper Priest, albeit for different reasons.

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