You wonder, not for the first time, what it is about second-person viewpoint characters. Is it the technical challenge, perhaps?
Or is it – and this is something you’ve been thinking for a while now – a rather insidious way of ensuring that there is no room for doubt in the reader’s mind about what is happening. The curse of the unreliable narrator is eliminated at a stroke. You can be absolutely certain that this is the truth because the author himself is putting the words into your head. Is it the ultimate in immersive science fiction?
You also want to rid yourself of the feeling that reading this novel is a little like being back in one of the old Steve Jackson Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, except that on this occasion you are in a maze of twisty plot strands, almost all exactly alike.
Various reviewers have observed that Stross does the second-viewpoint character rather well in Rule 34, by which I assume they mean he has managed the feat of writing an entire novel from this point of view. Whether he has done it well is another matter altogether; I am not convinced he has. The story is told by a series of different characters, all of whom need to be clearly distinguished from one another, and those distinctions consistently maintained. Stross succeeds for the most part with Liz and Anwar, the main characters, but some of the other characters seem to blur into one another at times. If, as I had to at various points, one is checking the chapter heading to see which character one has become this time something has clearly gone awry. I’d suggest that Stross’s ambition has overreached his ability to maintain those distinctions unless he is trying to make some frightfully elegant point about the way in which the characters in the novel are being controlled. To an extent, this is the case but I do not believe that the failure to clearly delineate individual voices is a conscious part of this scheme.
Beyond that, there is the sheer strain of reading an entire novel written in the second person. After a while the constant use of ‘you’ begins to feel as though one is being browbeaten into accepting the story as told. There can be no alternative reading. In fact, and I only fully realised it while I was writing this paragraph, it is as though the author doesn’t trust the reader to get it right on her own. In my post on By Light Alone I noted that Roberts leaves it to the reader to put together the broader picture but Stross, by contrast, is leaving absolutely nothing to chance and is making sure that she sees it from his point of view. He is in that way a very controlling authorial presence and it grates.
This level of control extends to the world-building within the novel. It’s a near-future science fiction novel and, given this is Charles Stross we are talking about, we can be quite sure everything portrayed within the novel has been rigorously extrapolated from contemporary research in a most exemplary fashion. Stross is not at all afraid of info-dumping. In fact, he does it far more stylishly than many science-fiction writers though one might begin to wonder if this isn’t because he has had a lot of practice. Be that as it may, this novel fairly creaks with information. It is of course set in a milieu where information is a vital currency and where info-dumping is the norm but there is – how to put it – always a little more information being made available than one perhaps needs at any given moment. It gets in the way as much as it facilitates. Again, this might be a wry commentary on the abundance of information in contemporary life but somehow I doubt that.
To take a small but irritating example, there is a moment when Liz the detective is eating microwaved noodles at her desk. But not any old noodles; we are specifically told these are seitan bulgogi noodles. Perhaps Stross is afraid ‘you’ will try to mentally substitute a Pot Noodle and spoil the effect but it did seem unnecessary when someone is slurping a quick meal in front of the computer screen. Oddly enough, the higher up the event hierarchy the story moves, the less egregious detail there seems to be. Stross is dealing with fairly intricate matters involving finance, economics and artificial intelligence and conveys the information clearly and even interestingly. It is when he is creating atmosphere and character, in fact, when he is writing fiction, that the prose begins to clot with detail.
Character is something else that Stross does intensely – oh so intensely – but not always that convincingly. His main characters tick all the boxes in the world for ethnic, sexual, gender diversity and parity, and yet I found myself never quite believing the old married backchat between Anwar and his wife, or Liz’s shared history with Dorothy. Similarly, most of Liz’s police colleagues seemed to have been pulled out of the box marked ‘Edinburgh police sidekicks’ and could have as easily been dropped into one of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels or indeed adio 4’s McLevy with little in the way of significant alteration. Only one character really seemed to fit comfortably into the novel – the academic, Macfarland, known to Anwar as the Gnome, and recognised by Liz as a calculating sociopath. And he fits perhaps because he is the only person who has more than a passing glimmer of what might be really going on.
The story itself is a police procedural set primarily in Edinburgh. People begin turning up dead in highly unlikely circumstances, and Liz Kavanaugh, sidelined in her career and now running the Innovative Crime Investigation Unit because no one else really believes in its value, begins to notice some odd connections between these and other European cases. Meanwhile, Anwar Hussein, a small-time internet criminal, now on probation, lands himself an unlikely job as the Honorary Consul for the Independent Republic of Issyk-Kulistan in Edinburgh, with no real idea what this involves, though strangely, one of his jobs seems to be to dole out packaged bread mix to anyone who asks for it. On top of this, a stranger, John Christie, has come to town to recruit for his organisation, only to find his prospective employees dead before he gets to them. Meanwhile a couple of low-lifes who have apparently escaped from Trainspotting are struggling to fulfil an order of goods from their illegal 3D printing operation, which has just gone horribly wrong with what I think is supposed to be comic effect.
Structurally this is familiar fare; this is how police procedurals work and we can make a reasonable guess that the different strands of story will eventually converge, even if it is not immediately clear how this will come to pass. However, this does raise the question of whether Rule 34 is in fact science fiction or simply a police procedural with particularly high-quality near-future window-dressing. As a police procedural, Rule 34 doesn’t quite work because, although the different plot strands do indeed converge they don’t finally all connect, at least not in ways that can be considered coherent. In one case the reader can infer but that seems to be at odds with the way in which the rest of the novel has been so heavily controlled. In at least one other instance the plot no longer makes any sense at all.
As for the rest of it, if I read this correctly Stross moves from the procedural to the science-fictional by means of a deus ex machina, or rather by suddenly shifting the novel’s focus to acknowledging the existence of something that has been hinted at throughout the novel, very vaguely hinted at, but not sufficiently so to justify its being pulled like a rabbit out of a hat to excuse this messy tangle of plot ends. I could propose an elegant argument suggesting that not only are characters being nudged around by this AI version of pinball but so is the reader, hence the insistence on ‘you’. I could but I am not going to because more than anything else it would feel like more of the hand-waving that is already going on to conceal the problems with this novel.
Does this last-minute shift transform the novel into science fiction? It could do but I would have to be feeling very generous to let it get away with that, not when it feels too much like a convenient bridge to get an author out of a very nasty corner he has painted himself into. It may be that this sudden revelation was Stross’s intention all along but if so I would love to be able to look back and see some point in the novel that I completely missed – this is, after all, what happens in the best detective novels. However, I just cannot find that place.
The annoying thing is that in some ways this book is rather likeable. It’s very eager to please and it works very hard to be entertaining and exciting. To some extent it succeeds. However, for the most part it is really trying far too hard, as a result of which the immersive experience becomes something rather closer to being bullied or else forcibly drowned in detail, and that to me is not what a novel should be doing.