Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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The Graduation Conspiracy, Part III

Finally, two weeks later, I did not surprise my cousin for her college graduation! She knew I was coming. Everyone knew I was coming. Look, sometimes conspiracy is exhausting.

After lunch and frozen yogurt, we went to Nidhi's place to move her out. She hadn't taken her keys, however, so we had to wait for someone to let us in. We spread a blanket out on the grass to lie down on while we waited. When he arrived, we began taking things out and putting them on the walkway. Baa lay on the blanket and took a nap.


It was like something out of a sitcom. Suddenly water was spraying everywhere, on the blanket, on Baa, on all of Nidhi's stuff.

Baa was having such a nice dream.

You've heard of Rule 34: if it exists, there is porn of it. So you were intrigued by Charles Stross's Rule 34, which follows a detective on the Rule 34 Squad, who monitor Internet memes to determine whether people are making some of these fantasies a reality. You were even more intrigued by the fact that it—like Halting State, which takes place in the same world but is not necessary to have read for this book (you know because you haven't)—was written in second-person. Even better, it follows multiple characters! You love stories told through multiple POVs!

The technique works both for and against the book. It certainly draws you into the book because, in a sense, you do become these characters. You are DI Liz Kavanaugh, who investigates one Edinburgh murder and soon finds herself caught up in a whole series of related mysterious deaths. You are Anwar Hussein, who takes a friend's advice on a get-rich-quick scheme and soon finds himself caught up in a curious political drama involving mysterious bread mix. You are the Toymaker, a psychopath who is a bit inconvenienced by all these murders. You are a whole host of supporting characters that offer glimpses into how all these stories are tied together. Each character has a unique voice; Stross's writing is vibrant and seems to leap off the page, especially with the Toymaker. But the use of second-person is also somewhat distancing; it almost seems like an invasion of privacy to connect too strongly to these characters because they are telling their stories to themselves, not you.

It takes you a bit to get into the book, especially because it's very Scottish—you're not sure which words are made-up future words and which words are just Scottish—but once it gets going, you're totally sucked into this cyberpunk murder mystery. You're reminded of Neal Stephenson—he even uses the "esprit up to here" phrase you love so much—and Lauren Beukes—the book dissects spammers the way she dissects the Nigerian scam. Stross frequently writes for effect than for a purpose at times; various passages seem to read as if he simply couldn't stop writing and wanted to capture the mood of the moment or the character's mental state. But you are caught up in the future he's created, where police use virtual reality and artificial intelligence to fight crime. Stross's future isn't too ridiculously high-tech; instead, like the best science fiction writers, he views the present and extrapolates. Rule 34 tackles the future of spambots, anti-spambots, A.I., geopolitical instability, organized crime, economic crisis, and much more.

You give the book points for having queer characters (and even one queer character of color). You dock a few points because it's kind of hard to follow. You give most of those points back because it's so thrilling and exciting to read that you don't care that you don't fully understand all the intricacies of the plot. You don't understand all the detailed technical descriptions of software and technology and you understand even less about the politics, but you trust that it somehow makes sense because Stross writes with such confidence. You definitely want to read Halting State now. Rule 34 was such a novel reading experience.

You really love the last line.

It was a strange experience to read Halting State after Rule 34 because I can't help but think I would have a much different reaction to it had I read the books in a different order. As it stands, Halting State feels like Charles Stross's test-run for Rule 34.

Like Rule 34, Halting State takes place in a near-future independent Scotland, and the story is told in second-person from multiple POVs. Many readers seem to have trouble with the second-person, but I really enjoy the style. It's not quite as disorienting in this book, which mostly restricts itself to the three protagonists: Sue, a police detective; Elaine, an insurance investigator; and Jack, a programmer. Again, as in Rule 34, their stories begin independently but soon become intertwined, but they collide fairly early and directly in this book, converging on the investigation of a very unusual robbery...inside an MMORPG. That's right, someone stole virtual money. That is what this book is about.

The focus on virtual worlds and their connection to the real world is reminiscent of Ready Player One, and although this book does not match the sheer, giddy joy of that one, it does have some fun sequences set inside games. Of course, as in Rule 34, the initial mystery leads to something bigger. My problem was that after the labyrinthine complexity of Rule 34, Halting State felt disappointingly simple. There are some wonderful revelations, but after it becomes generally clear what's going on in the book, there's really not much else, and the book seems to spin its wheels until the end. There's a hell of a lot of Scottish and hilarious bits here and there, but, again, I felt that Rule 34 was stronger overall in every aspect from characterization to plotting to language.

Robert Ian Mackenzie has won many awards for his audiobooks, and it's no surprise why; he makes the book as Scottish as it should be and infuses every word with verve and personality. It's a shame that after a certain point, I didn't feel like paying too much attention. Halting State is good, but Rule 34 is really good.
Tags: books, family, personal, pictures
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