BOOK REVIEW: The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi

REVIEW SUMMARY: A flawed sequel to The Quantum Thief that is even more inscrutable than its predecessor.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Jean Le Flambeur and his ally Mieli travel to Earth, seeking a way to open up the prize so hard won from the Oubliette.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A strongly imaginative and intricately worked out post-Singularity far future; interesting use of the Arabian Nights as a template.
CONS: Concepts and depictions of complex concepts that leave a lot to be desire; not enough explanation by half; underwhelming ending.
BOTTOM LINE: A follow up to The Quantum Thief that ultimately has major problems of accessibility.

Jean le Flambeur has his hard won prize from his adventures on Mars. (See my review of The Quantum Thief.) However, unlocking it is even more difficult than getting it in the first place. To open it and reveal the secrets within, Jean and Mieli are going to have to journey to a place even more alien. A place where rogue nanotech code can infect the unwary. A place where two sisters plot a revolution. A place where A.I. Jinns live in the blasted desert and hoard their secrets, stories and knowledge, and seek to possess the living. Jean and Mieli are going back to the cradle of humanity–Earth.

The technical detail and ideas in The Fractal Prince, sequel to Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel The Quantum Thief, are, if anything, even more overwhelming than in the preceding volume. Juggling Sobornosts, Schrodinger Boxes, gogols, and zokus from the first novel, readers get a whole new family and category of invention on Earth: Wildcode, Jinn, and the Cry of Wrath. The author has worked out his post-Singularity, far future solar system in amazing and seemingly endlessly fractal detail. If the past is a different country, the future is an alien country, and the author drives that point home in this novel.

Related to those details and ideas is the evocation of the far future’s sense of place. The Earth of this far future feels like a post-Singularity version of the Arabian Nights. It’s not only the Jinn and the desert, but the very names of characters such as Tawaddud and Dunyazad are meant to evoke stories from The Arabian Nights. The structure of the novel, too, as a intricate set of interlocking and framing stories, makes it feel as if Rajaniemi is trying to recast a fragment of that the story cycle in a far-future format. We also get a sense of what Venus has become, as some of Mieli’s backstory and how she came to serve the Sorbonost Josephine Pellagrini revolves around the strange customs and beliefs there. There are also tantalizing hints, only hints. as to just how the solar system became post-human in the first place.

For all of this, though, The Fractal Prince was a flawed reading experience. The bottom-line problem with it, even more than its predecessor, is that it reads as if the author read Kathleen Ann Goonan, Charles Stross, Karl Schroeder, Vernor Vinge, Linda Nagata, and Wil McCarthy, and decided that the problem with their high tech universes is that they made too many shortcuts and explained too much to the reader. The Fractal Prince is brilliant and amazing on a technical level, don’t get me wrong. Even full of jargon, neologisms and incomprehensible subjects, the author has a command of English and the ability to write a line of prose. However, I think it is too much a work of brilliant artifice and art and not enough accessibility. I couldn’t have grokked this book ten years ago. I’m not entirely certain, with thirty years of experience in science fiction, and reading the authors mentioned above and others in their ilk, that I completely grokked The Fractal Prince even so. I suspect that I really need a degree in Mathematics, on top of all that science fiction reading. And that inaccessibility is a real problem.

Rajaniemi is unfailingly and mercilessly uncompromising in not explaining anything and leaving the reader to sink or swim. This book has an amazingly small audience of people who have the grounding and the background necessary to even make a go of reading the book, and without any help given, it’s work even for such readers to really unlock the text. Given its complexity, density and nature, its unclear if what is unlocked has any relationship to what the author intended. This may be why I found the ending of the novel extremely unsatisfying and underwhelming.

I wanted to love The Fractal Prince, just as I liked The Quantum Thief. Two books into this series, though, there is just too much work for it to be fun. It’s too much like homework and a slog to read and the rewards thin by comparison. And the universe it describes still needs a glossary in the book itself. (I am aware there is one on Wikipedia.)

While I admire the inventiveness and imagination of his far-future world, his depiction is just too cold and clinical. I only can recommend this book to readers who have read extensively in the high-tech post-singularity subgenre. This is a high-attention book that requires deep study. And even then it may not entirely work for you. Although Jean does tell the story of his first adventure in the course of the novel, I think it’s completely hopeless to try and read this novel without having The Quantum Thief.

13 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi”

  1. I couldn’t get through the first one. There seemed to be some interesting concepts and a good central idea, but ultimately it’s pretentious nonsense because of the writing.

    A little more traditional narrative and I would be attracted.

  2. Hmm well, I read every book in the high-tech post-singularity subgenre I can get my hands on and I disliked this one. I did like the Quantum Thief. I didn’t have the same complaints as you – didn’t think the text was mathematical, or cold and clinical. (That’s how I think of Greg Egan.) Maybe all that went right over my head.

    Anyway, my complaint was every few pages someone else would start telling a damn story. And away the plot would go, detour inside of detour inside of detour. A lot of these detours just weren’t very interesting. Some of them gave some deep background to the world building but without a connection to the main plot it was hard to care about any of it. That is provided you could even figure out where the main plot started up again – and if it actually did, or if it was supposed to be another Matryoshka doll.

    I guess Rajaniemi was trying to make a point about how making stories is making the world. But srsly dude, save it for an academic experiment. Genre fiction has got to grab you by the throat and take you on a ride.

  3. I like SF Signal, but considering the disgraceful approach to the review of his first novel on this site, I expected some recognition of that in both the decision to review the second and how it was approached.

    1. Jeff, is comparing John’s review of The Quantum Thief to my review of The Fractal Prince entirely fair?

      1. I’ve got to echo Paul’s statements on this one. Paul calls out his own review of the first novel, which would seem more relevant to his experience with the second novel than a different reviewer’s experience with the first novel.

    2. This is a pretty ridiculous thing to say. Blame him for the heat wave too, while you’re a it Jeff.

  4. Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t make it bad. I haven’t read the Fractal Prince yet but I though The Quantum Thief was amazing and refreshingly different from anything else. To only recommend this new book to readers “who have read extensively in the high-tech post-singularity subgenre” seems a little odd. Are we really that dumbed down now that a book that has difficult or challenging ideas automatically makes it bad? Sometimes the pleasure in reading comes with a bit of work and that often makes it much more rewarding at the end.

    1. I am not saying it makes it automatically bad. And if you read the link to The Quantum Thief review, I enjoyed the first novel on the strength of that freshness and invention.

      However, that inventiveness only works so far. Two novels in, I am less convinced that the effort needed to decode the text is worth the reward. And I can’t imagine handing this novel to anyone but the most well read of readers. They’d bounce right off of the text and land on their —.

  5. I have to say, this review is exactly the kind of review I like to read. It allows me to answer the most important question: “Is this my kind of book?” Your pros and cons are specific and yet you don’t reveal plotlines and spoilers.

    Anything beyond that is opinion, and if this were my kind of book, I’d be diving for it to form my own.

  6. This does seem a fair review and reflects one we had on our site at the beginning of the year: our review here The Fractal Prince.

    The question is, will the third book (whose MS may well possibly have been submitted prior to many The Fractal Prince reviews) be as densely opaque? Or will it return to the brilliance of The Quantum Thief?

    Re:”I like SF Signal, but considering the disgraceful approach to the review of his first novel on this site, I expected some recognition of that in both the decision to review the second and how it was approached.”

    Not sure it is at all reasonable to judge a review by one reviewer with that of another reviewer even if they are on the same site (in the same country or planet for that matter). Because reviewers are different at SF2 Concat we quite often have duplicate reviews (if we are sent a duplicate book and one of the review team are up for it). Also we have a policy that if a reviewer gives a book a really bad review then the next time that author gets reviewed we use a different reviewer… In short, no problem with SF Signal having a different reviewer for the sequel.

  7. Very fair and well thought out review Paul. I think this is a book that is very divisive. I, for one, loved every second of it. I would be lying if I understood half of what was said, but that just made it more fun to try and puzzle out what was going on. For me the obtuse plot invited a second and third reading. It’s been said in other reviews and I have to agree: Hannu is the Gene Wolfe of Post-Singularity SF.

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