So I’m less than one paragraph, not even a full line into Rule 34 and I read, “…and you’re coming to the end of your shift on the West End control desk”. I bite down on a sudden surge of frustration that threatens to overwhelm me.
The thing I disliked the most about the previous book by Charles Stross, Halting State, was the use of the second person perspective. “You’re” is the seventh word in this novel. A quick scan of the rest of the book seems to indicate the entire thing is written from my own point of view. I lose a fraction of a millimetre of enamel as my molars grind against each other in an involuntary expression of irritation, then I wrestle control of those muscles back from my subconscious.
I unclench. This is Stross’s second book in this universe, maybe he got better at using the second person and somehow it’s going to feel a little less like someone’s scratching the surface of my brain and then smearing tabasco on it.
What is Rule 34, anyway? Is there a rule 33? Turns out that Rule 34 is an internet meme, so we’re going to need to know what one of those is too. Rule 34, or the 34th rule of the internet, states that pornography or sexually-related material exists for every conceivable content, somewhere. In Stross’s universe, the Rule 34 police unit trawls and monitors the most disgusting things on the internet in an attempt to police the overspill of the aforementioned imaginative horrors into the real world.
Given that the world itself seems replete with filth of every conceivable kind, the unit is somewhat overtaxed, all the more so since it’s considered a not-very-good-place to be assigned, so it’s long on deliverables and short on talent.
The local police force (because we’re in Edinburgh, in an independent Scotland), is suddenly dealing with a very twisted and somewhat revolting death caused – it would seem – by foul dealings of a very technologically sophisticated kind, and this death turns out to be the small and phallically-protruding tip of an iceberg of mammoth proportions.
By the time I’ve understood all this, my subconscious has more or less made peace with the second person perspective, but every time I put the book down and pick it up again, the shock of (self?) recognition causes my sense of style to grumble indignantly and I’m running the risk of a premature enamel shortage.
I find the book hard going. The Scottish dialect is deliberately kicking the glass house of story immersion and reminding me I’m turning the (virtual) pages of a (digital) book. As cracks appear in my acceptance of Stross’s reality, only a lifetime of polite upbringing prevents me from cursing the author by name for his love affair with phonetic spellings of accents that hail from beyond Hadrian’s wall. Nevertheless, I soldier on.
Somehow, two thirds of the way through the book, I find that I am closer to the end than I thought, and that I am anticipating the dénouement. A short period of life spent in Glasgow many years ago perhaps makes the style more approachable for me than some, and the interaction between new technology and the people in Stross’s universe is, after all, very well thought through. Oh God, am I actually enjoying this now?
I’m almost bitter that I’ve been tricked into liking a book written in the second person (actually a great variety of second persons that get quite confusing at times, you might want to dial it down a bit next time). I’m also, to my immense distaste, accepting the fact that some of the characters would have been impossible to understand had we not been put into their heads (thankfully with some editing-out of the more repulsive thoughts). Therefore the use of the second person does – am I actually agreeing with this? – serve a real purpose here.
The final page flickers briefly across my eReader as I swipe from right to left and I’m presented with a list of other books by Charles Stross. What? That’s how it ends? Also: steady on, I’ve bought two of his books already, one thing at a time. But here’s the thing: while I had a hard time with it to start, and it clearly required more effort than many books to get into, against all expectations, I actually enjoyed this. Despite some story elements that are – to say the least – quite disturbing.
The story doesn’t end so much as fall off the edge of a cliff, with a deus-ex-machina-esque wrap-up that’s almost as sudden and unexplained as Don Juan taking the statue’s hand for a one-way trip to hell. I realise I’m not sure what the motivation of some of the characters really is, or that I have fully understood what happened, or even if I have enough information to attempt a full understanding.
But this doesn’t matter, because the story was actually less important than the people who inhabit it. The mystery we’re following is too convoluted to lend itself to a casual understanding, and too much is left unexplained (especially to a financially-trained person) for it to hang together nicely, but by the end, I was in it for the scenery, I wanted to know what happened to the characters, and I was just enjoying the descriptions of how the technology changes our interactions with the world around us, and with each other.
A multi-viewpoint novel that manages to weave several threads at once to make a story, Halting State takes us into a future where information, interaction and games have to a large extent blended with the real world through the near ubiquitous use of augmented reality overlays.
I had a very hard time deciding if I liked this book or not.
On the one hand, the vision of the future is extremely well-pitched, with augmented reality providing different layers of information overlaid onto the real world through the use of glasses that are more or less ubiquitous. The police see the Copspace overlay, army see Milspace, and the technology has allowed gaming to step out of the realm of 100% simulation and into the real world. At the same time, massively multiplayer online gaming has reached a stage where so much value is at stake that specialised financial companies are contracted to manage the in-game economies by taking control of the central bank. The games run on compatible platforms, which results in borders and passages from one game to another, and games compete for players through the aggressive management of “fun”.
These technologies, valuable though they are, provide numerous new ways to compromise national security and corporate secrecy, and this is not lost on the various secret services and terrorist groups, who have all been creative in their use of the virtual and semi-virtual environments.
What we then have is a detective story that begins with the robbery of the central bank of a major online game. This is the thread that our main characters pull on, which begins to unravel a much larger series of interlocking conspiracies that rapidly spill over into the real world.
Despite the very promising melange, somewhat reminiscent of Neal Stephenson (the master of this particular art), we have a narrative that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do, and therefore tries to do too much.
A short way into the book I began wondering why I was being beaten over the head with a narrative written in the second person. That is a very strange point of view to adopt, and a very unusual literary device. Had there been a specific point to adopting it I might have found it interesting, but instead it was just jarring, and combined with the rapid jumps between three different main characters – each with their own point of view – made the book heavy going. I had such a hard time getting used to the narrative style that I put the book down, re-read Snow Crash to remember how this kind of world can be properly portrayed, and then came back to it.
The narrative also doesn’t entirely decide whether it wants to be a bit funny or more serious. The technology and its implications are very interesting and have the potential for much storytelling and analysis, but while we’re reading about the very real theft of tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in a virtual environment, we get descriptions of orcs and dragons that appear to serve no purpose, all narrated by a confused Scottish police officer which means we’re in for lots of “Aye, Reet” and “Ye dinna have tae take ma wurd fer it, I’ll text you a photie“, in order to get the point across that her accent is unintelligible.
I’ve lived in Scotland, briefly, so it doesn’t bother me too much, it’s even charming in small doses, but I can’t imagine it going down easily for a US audience, for example.
I feel like there’s a lot of potential here, but I keep thinking of Stephenson and the way he gets so much more into the story than just a detective story – the interesting world-building is just that, it doesn’t go further, making any points about how this world affects people, how it might affect the balance of power between government and people, rich and poor, first world and third world, or whatever. It doesn’t go into much depth about the relative importance to people of the online world versus the offline world, and how people’s habits might change, and what felt like a world quickly becomes window-dressing for a detective story.
Given the potential of the vision, I’ve already bought the next book in the series and it’s on my virtual “to-read” shelf, and I’m hoping Charles Stross is more ambitious next time. I think this could lead to something great.
In short, I enjoyed the book, but was left with the feeling that I’d been sold a full meal and realised at the end of it that I’d been put on a diet without getting told first.