You should read this: Rule 34

As you’re reading the review, it’s quickly apparent to you that the book in question is a bit of an experiment. Not only are there multiple viewpoint characters, but the text is written in the second person.

I found it somewhat jarring at first, you read, but after a few chapters it seemed normal, almost ordinary, that I was all of these characters: The porn cop, the pirate 3d printer owner, the ambassador on probation. I was all of them.

Rule 34 is a book you’ve been waiting for, as you follow the author’s blog. You’ve been following Charlie Stross since his first, nearly-coherent novel. But will this indulgent mutation of the language work?

Sure, there’s gee-whiz tech everywhere, the review continues, and I think you’ll find that the odd writing works after a few rocky chapters. Reading on, you quickly discover that:

  • The world of the near-future is virtually a panopticon of project management.
  • Politicians have spawned laws to the point that the police need software agents to decide which of several intellectual property laws a suspect has broken.
  • Update or die: Facebook has withered, but social networking is part of the everyday grind.

So you buy the book and start reading. Disconcertingly, the opening chapter shows a man dead in his bathroom, as an enema machine feeds drugs into his…body. After you’re all comfy inside Inspector Kavanaugh’s head for a bit, you quickly meet Anwar, a former identity thief looking to (maybe) go straight, and then the Toymaker, a bug-shooter for an international syndicate. Secondaries include Liz Kavanaugh’s cast of edgy co-workers and her not-girlfriend, Dorothy, a corporate auditor.

You turn the pages eagerly despite a feeling of foreboding, that it will all going to hell at the end of the book. (You feel a bit of relief when you finish the book and escape the world of barely-the-future.) The story was be complex, confusing, and gripping. You know that the author won’t be writing books this complicated anytime soon, since he said so.

And it’s easy to see why: Making the pages turn quickly while those multiple narrators are doing their best to confuse the reader has gotta be hard.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor. On the side, he’s the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides a mean bicycle, and he paints with oils when the mood strikes him.

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2 thoughts on “You should read this: Rule 34

  1. Bright Lights, Big City used the second-person gimmick 25+ years ago (dear God, I’m old), and I remember finding it off-putting, since the “you” in that story does a lot of things that I would never do. I felt like the author was trying to make me complicit, to imply that everyone does these things, and my inner reading voice kept fighting the narrator. Of course, I use the second person shamelessly in my essays, so maybe I should shut up.

  2. When reading second-person prose, we feel we’re being blamed (or, charitably, inappropriately credited) for the things the protagonist is doing. I think it works in this book because of the multiple viewpoints: they spread out the blame, and the device becomes transparent after we cycle through a few changes of viewpoint. The reader can then concentrate on the story.

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