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5 Minutes - and, perhaps, a bit more - into the future.,
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This review is from: Rule 34 (Halting State) (Kindle Edition)This is a police procedural novel set in Edinburgh, capital of the independent nation of Scotland, some time in the very near future - "near future" as in about 10 years from today, i.e., 2013. This is a future of "3-D" copy machines, near artificial intelligence, and globalization and surveillance gone wild. The story follows Borders and Lothian Detective Inspector Liz Cavanaugh as she is sucked into a highly improbable murder of a person loosely connected to local organized crime.
Liz's usual beat is "Rule 34" violations, which are an internet geek in-joke that have become highly possible and hugely disruptive. "Rule 34" is the internet canard that there is nothing so improbably, unlikely or disgusting that someone hasn't turned it into internet porn. The problem in this near-future is that wild ideas in a society of "replicators" and social fracture and globalization can be imitated by many people very quickly and create all kinds of new dysfunctions.
Because of her Rule 34 beat, Liz learns that other internet scam artists are being liquidated in other parts of Europe. This lead to the introduction of a disgraced Interpol cop - who had a hand in Liz's disgrace a few years before this story - and the two start investigating as other wildly improbable deaths of various internet criminals start showing up. The deaths are all incredibly complex and improbable, and seem to disclose a superhuman ability to plan and/or alter probabilities to bring together circumstances that lead to fatal accidents. They also seem to involve people who are somehow involved in phishing and spamming. In the near future, spamming is the essential industry for criminal enterprise because they need to advertise somehow, and in order to advertise they have interest people with their advertisements, which means getting past the future's highly-developed spam filters, which means developing something that approximates artificial intelligence.
Stross also populates his story with other viewpoint characters. There is Anwar Hussein, a con recently released from prison for his spamming frauds, who has been talked into becoming the honorary consul for the Independent Republic of Issyk-Kulistan. (It is a tribute to Stross's braiding of his story into our world that there really is an Issyk-Kulistan.) There is also the Toymaker, a sociopath who represents the criminal Organization that supplies things that people want and needs the spammers to make people aware of what they want but can't get. There is also Colonel Datka and his boss Bhaskar, president of Khyrgistan, another real country, who seems to have something of a long game being played out.
Over the course of the story these threads develop, weave around each other and finally come together for a satisfying ending.
There were a few problematic elements. First, Stross seems to go out of his way to populate his book with casual, kinky sex. Anwar is unfaithful to his wife with men. One of the fulcrum character who links Anwar to other threads is the "Gnome," who is one of Anwar's homosexual assignations. Liz is a lesbian. One of the fulcrum characters who brings together various threads is Dorthy, one of Liz's lesbian lovers. Dorothy hooks up with the Toymaker for a night of casual sex, involving sado-masochism and "safe words," After he gets what he wants, he casually tosses her out of his apartment, making her feel devalued and used, which gets her to consider whether she was really "raped." The first murder seems to involve some kind of masochistic self-bondage. Stross is either pitching this book for the libertine left, or, perhaps, he is making a point about the continuing deterioration of conventional morality in the near future, or he really thinks all this is normal. I don't think this is a particular issue, because it does seem to project the near-future quality that Stross is aiming at, but for anyone with particular moral issues that this kind of thing might offend, forewarned is fore-armed. For my part, I found the characters' politically correct post-prandial recriminations tiresome.
Another problematic aspect of the book was its use of a second person perspective at the beginning of various chapters. That was confusing and disrupted the flow of the story. It seems that there is a reason for that perspective, which is alluded to by the end of the book. however, that leads to the third problematic feature of the book, namely, the crime was never solved. Things to wrap up, and the Lothian and Borders Police Force think they have gotten their man, but the truth seems to be that there is something else floating around the global electronic ecosystem.
But that may be an issue for a future book.
The story works as both a police procedural and a view of things we may live to see. The story was interesting and gripping, and, as with all of Stross's books to date, I feel it fully justified my investment of time and money.