Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rule 34 and sidestepping superorganisms

Before I start this rant, I should mention that I absolutely love Charlie Stross's books and his blog, and that Rule 34 was no exception. I say this because the rest of this post will be fairly critical of the book, and may be somewhat critical of the man himself in passing. I should also note that everything I know of Stross I have learned from his blog and his various talks, which are posted there; as a result, I probably have a skewed view of what he does and doesn't know or think.

So, if you haven't read Rule 34 yet (and you should; I had to order it from Amazon, but if you don't live in the sticks your local bookstore probably has it), the basic idea behind it is this: in the future, Scotland is its own country, and the Edinburgh police force has a special operations squad studying internet memes and keeping an eye out for dangerous ones (ranging from things like planking, which are dangerous due to stupidity rather than malice, to things like copycat suicides, which are dangerous due to the autotoxic nature of the meme itself). Great setup. Then, there are a series of strange murders framed as bizarre suicides. If you keep up with this blog, you know where this is going -- but you'd be wrong.

While I won't spoil the twist ending (which is interesting in of itself, for all kinds of reasons even tangential to plot), the perp is not in fact a meme, nor is it some superorganism. While memetic perps are hard to write, there are several minor ones in that book particularly (and memetic perps of the Young Werther mould have been a dime a dozen since Gothe's time -- while they probably have about the same audience familiarity as laughing plagues or the Boston Molasses Disaster and are considered odder than Strange Rains); as for superorganism characters, they are still rare but they have been handled convincingly even in Count Zero.

So, why did Stross sidestep this idea?

He's aware of it. I mentioned it in a comment on his blog, which he responded to. Perhaps he doesn't feel like he can handle it as well? Perhaps he thinks it won't make such a ripping yarn?

Unfortunately, despite his excellent record in terms of legitimately new ideas, Rule 34 is innovative only by 1982 standards. This is not a big deal -- Neuromancer has certainly kept its flavour. However, Stross' books have been consistently stuck twenty minutes into the future of science fiction authorship, leading the way for all sorts of new twists on old genres that haven't even come up from the underground yet. I might even be tempted to blame The Atrocity Archives for the popularity of Magic-A-is-Magic-A urban fantasy thrillers, if not for the distinct lack of vampires and the distinct lovecraft-nerd flavour.

Now, if you haven't read Rule 34, I still recommend reading it. Read Halting State first. Then, read everything else he's ever written. He's impressive, and his adherence to hardness even in things like the Laundry series borders on the obsessive; in Iron Sunrise he talks the reader through the mathematics of physics fermi-figures on a fairly regular basis. I just feel like he missed an opportunity to really wow his readers with the resolution of Rule 34, and I hope he will approach the subject of superorganisms with agency in some later book.

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