BOOK REVIEW: The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi
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.
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.
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