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Rule 34 by Charles Stross

Many years ago, I used to play with expert systems and “artificial intelligence” applying the work done by Professor Donald Michie in Edinburgh. I was saddened by his death in 2007. His contribution to the art of simulating intelligence in machines was groundbreaking. It’s therefore appropriate we should return to Edinburgh for this latest outing by Charles Stross. Following on in the same “world” first seen in Halting State, we’re back in Scotland’s capital city with new shenanigans in the future uses and abuses of machine intelligence.

Rule 34 gives us an amusingly clever version of future reality. If we overlook the currently insoluble problem of a natural language ability in machines (ignoring Siri in the Apple iPhone 4S which remains primitive word recognition software), the plot is an extrapolation from the current Bayesian statistical approach to establishing the probability that the knowledge you hold is true or false. In your spam filter, for example, it learns whether it has correctly identified unwanted mail. As a bridge into the criminal law and policing, which is the core of this novel, Bayes’ Theorem recently received a fail grade from the English Court of Appeal in a murder case. An “expert” persuaded a jury of guilt based on the probability a pair of Nike trainers in the defendant’s possession left the shoeprint found at the murder scene. The conviction has been quashed. So much for the application of science in courts or perhaps the use of statistics isn’t scientific enough to be accepted by lawyers. Not entirely changing the subject, Turing Tests are held quite frequently and informed human observers are reasonably reliable in identifying the machines. But innocent individuals, interacting through chat rooms and IM systems, can be more easily fooled by today’s machines.

Charles Stross with a message for the world

Well, Charles Stross has us move forward a year or so in technological terms and suggests three developments of interest. The first is in market trading so that money may be moved around in different ways at short notice to maximise returns. I like the idea of corporatising small states like the current tax havens. Who needs them to be legitimate countries, anyway? The second is in the ability to fabricate a multitude of different “things”, some of them useful, others sinful, from downloaded designs. The third is in the use of stimuli to induce behavioural change. Think of it as being a way of nudging you into buying a product or forming a particular opinion. If you do begin to see a pattern in what’s going on around you, the most likely explanation is going to be coincidence.

This has Charles Stross playing the same game of Scottish accents as Iain Banks in The Bridge as we navigate carefully through the multiple layers of culture in Edinburgh society. It’s interesting to watch the vocabulary change and, tuning in your ears, hear the different accents. Frankly, I’m never really sure the process is very effective and the result on a page must represent something of a challenge for American readers. Nevertheless, there’s a pleasing jauntiness to much of this murder mystery as our only faintly motivated Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh contrives to solve the various cases on her radar (with a few helpful nudges and winks if you know what I mean). In this endeavour, she’s aided by her moderately loyal Rule 34 Squad, hindered by Chief Inspector Dixon, and treated as a threat by Detective Chief Inspector MacLeish. Perhaps her career would not have stalled if she’d been a worshipper of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, civilisation, justice and strength. Alternatively, perhaps it’s just as well she was shunted into the backwater that is the Rule 34 Squad because that means she may actually be at the cutting edge of detection — using computers rather than sharp knives, of course. But, thinking of Athena and wisdom leads us to the final element of subtext in the novel. The nature and role of ethics in our modern world is deeply frustrating. In philosophical terms, there’s never been a greater need for more people to be aware of the tool box of methods available to analyse the extent to which our behaviour is, or is not, ethical. Yet, you see the word “ethics” bandied around as if everyone understands it as a form of common sense. It’s not considered something to be studied. Rather we can somehow intuitively know whether what we’re doing is ethical. Never has a word been so abused as “ethics”. In Rule 34, Stross challenges us to consider the extent to which ethics is, or should be, a potential restraint on what we think or do. In purely objective terms, our intelligence might suggest particular behaviour will produce better outcomes. Utilitarianism in action, as it were. But we may hesitate to ignore the ethical or other rule-based systems if the behaviour will lead to disapproval or, even, personal penalties. What price are we prepared to pay to obtain the results we desire?

Like Halting State, Rule 34 is good fun. Although we do get a bit more infodumping explanations in the later stages, the overall effect is light and airy. It’s also a good puzzle to work out who everyone is and what they are up to. The murders, successful and merely attempted, are also suitably gruesome. After all, if this is a story about technology on the rampage, we’d better have machines intimately involved in the manner of each of the early deaths. Rule 34 is definitely worth picking up and you should make time to read it.

There’s terrific jacket artwork for the US edition from Alberto Seveso.

For the other reviews of books by Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
The Fuller Memorandum
Neptune’s Brood
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens
Wireless.

For the record, Rule 34 was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

  1. October 9, 2011 at 2:39 am

    Did you enjoy his earlier works? For example, Singularity Sky?

    One of the reasons I gave up reading contemporary sci-fi was Singularity Sky — it really really put me off — endless tech dump lectures… alas…

    • October 9, 2011 at 3:03 am

      Some of Stross is very readable but you have to be very careful because he can also be very self-indulgent and rather boring. The only novels I would seriously recommend are The Atrocity Archives, Halting State, and The Family Trade. One of two of the others are OK but there are problems. Some of the short stories are very clever but, as a body of work, it’s very uneven.

  2. October 9, 2011 at 3:06 am

    I’ve heard bad things about The Family Trade — I read an interview of Stross’ a while back where he claimed that simply wrote them for money because his editor suggested the project to him…. Obviously he tried to make them better than a normal series pandering to a specific audience…

  3. October 9, 2011 at 3:15 am

    The Merchant Princes series steadily becomes unreadably awful, but I enjoyed the first one. It’s an adventure story with a fairly credible female heroine suddenly discovering she has an ability to move from one dimension to another. The Hidden Family is OK but don’t read any of the others. The fact Family Trade was written for commercial reasons doesn’t mean it’s awful.

    • October 9, 2011 at 3:23 am

      Yup yup, that’s why I said he tried to make them better than a normal series pandering to a specific audience.

  1. October 6, 2011 at 12:32 pm

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