Monday, January 13, 2014

Rule 34 by Charles Stross

Sorry for the long delay, but I’ve been dealing with work backlog, work frontlog due to vacation, and an entirely depressing round of what appears to be my very first chronic health issue.  At least it’s not debilitating, but taking all those pills in the morning really drives home the fact that at the end of the day I’m a sack of meat with some glands in, and will not last forever.

With that cheery thought, it’s a great time to examine Rule 34, which is a really good story about AI wrapped up in enough bizarre affectation to almost but not quite bury the really good part.

I’ve gone on at some length in my previous reviews about how many classic SF authors thought we’d have much cooler stuff in the near future than we actually do (e.g., faster than light travel, mental telepathy, genetic supermen) while missing out on many of the actually cool things we do have (like microcomputers, cell phone cameras, the Internet) and totally missing social changes, like women’s liberation and gay rights.  Today’s SF authors feel emboldened to grab stuff from the old playbooks where necessary, but have also started to get heavily into the implications of social media and wide-net data collection.  I suppose that SF has really always been more about contemporary social commentary than anything else, so it makes sense.  This one is so contemporary that's it's actually named after an Internet meme, which states that everything that exists has a pornographic representation on the Internet somewhere.

One of the things that authors like Stross have been examining lately is also the nature of intelligence.  Isaac Asimov may have written stories about how someone would buy the latest positronic brain model from US Robots & Mechanical Men and plug it in, but these days it seems like an artificial general intelligence is as far removed from us as it ever has been.  At the same time, neuroscience and brain imaging demonstrate that even human intelligence is deeply weird.  There are implications that much of what our conscious mind does is create elaborate justifications for decisions which have already been made at deeper levels not subject to what we would call “personal” control, with corresponding questions about what a person is and to what extent we can be said to have free will at all.  Not to mention that the evolved nature of our intelligence means that any use that it has besides helping a bunch of primates survive day-to-day out on the savannah is more or less a fortunate side effect.  Or, occasionally, an unfortunate side effect.

So if we do succeed in making some sort of general intelligence, it probably won’t resemble human intelligence any more than an F-35 resembles a harpy eagle.  Sure, they both fly, but the eagle flies because feathers were an evolutionary advantage to one of its distant ancestors, and it’s got concerns like eating, sleeping, and making more eagles.  The airplane was built with its function in mind, so it can do stuff that the eagle can’t, like go the speed of sound, straight up.  This leads to the question of what function or purpose a machine intelligence would or should have.  Stross wrote a short essay once that the most likely result is that the AIs’ purpose in life would probably be to identify humans’ goals as their own; there’s really no point in creating something that’s just another human, since we can make as many of those as we want anyway.

Of course that’s not very dramatically exciting so in this book some assholes make an AI that wants to fight crime.  But since it doesn’t have much of a physical incarnation it goes about this by arranging serendipitous deaths for unpleasant people, such as the gentleman who is discovered having been overdosed on protease inhibitors and Viagra by a reprogrammed Romanian enema machine.  The cops responding to this particular call refer to this as a “two wetsuit job”, referencing the highly weird.  And it gets referred to the Innovative Crimes Division, a future unit of the police who spend much of their time trying to determine whether any laws have actually been violated by the increasingly bizarre activities dreamed up by the highly-networked world.  They're the ones who are the Rule 34 references, since they basically spend most of their time dredging through the worst the Internet has available and see if anyone's trying to actually do it.

That paragraph right there is way more straightforward than the explanation given in the book, by the way.  Stross has an affinity for the outlandish which falls somewhere between “compulsive” and “batshit insane”; in one of his previous works the entire planet Earth got disassembled between chapter breaks and rated barely a shrug in the grand narrative.  Saying that Rule 34 is “about” anything in one paragraph does not do it justice.  There is also a plot involving Central Asian sovereign debt issues, unlicensed trafficking of matter fabricators, a worldwide economic collapse, a panopticon surveillance society, police department promotions based on blog hits, an organized crime ring which makes heavy use of MBAs, and insect-free bread mix.  These things do basically all intersect but Stross doesn’t go out of his way to hold your hand about it.

The action is narrated in the second person, which is highly weird.  I’ve always been of the opinion that second-person is okay for advertising copy and blog posts, and possibly third graders.  At first I considered it grating and annoying.  Then, as the book continued, I thought I began to see what Stross was going for with the AI theme.  Hmmm, sez I, it’s trying to make the reader identify with these people and their actions through the narrative itself, and it became interesting.  And then I oscillated back into deciding that it was grating after all when I decided that I’d gotten the point already.  There’s also quite a bit of non-localized Scottish slang in there, which in my opinion is really fun to read, but combined with the non-standard narrative structure can make getting through parts of it kind of a slog.

Narrative strangeness aside, the main characters are entirely well-developed and interesting.  There’s a Scottish police officer, who is basically the main character insofar as there is one, whose career has sort of stalled out and has a messy personal life.  There’s a theoretically Muslim individual who’s into beer and gay sex a little much to be truly devout, who is sort of a sad sack and bad luck magnet who could be in an Elmore Leonard novel and should be happy that he isn’t.   There’s also a psychopath who also happens to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia due to an unfortunate treatment regimen for the psychopathology in his youth.  Now he’s on different medication so that he won’t see the lizard people.  Doesn’t do anything about the psychopath part, unfortunately; he does at one point get asked by his handlers in the organized crime ring he works for to go somewhere and “downsize” a couple of guys.

On the whole, I really liked the anarchic weirdness of this book, and it’s probably one of the finer examples of modern SF that I’ve seen lately.  At the same time, it’s also just so painfully self-aware at times that it’s not always the most enjoyable read.  I keep thinking I’d like it more if it weren’t trying to show me that it didn’t care about my conventions, man.  After all, they are conventions for a reason.  But maybe that’s why they have all those monitors down at the Innovative Crime Division.

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