Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Fractal Prince

Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz (

Hannu Rajaniemi is a magnificent bastard of a novelist, who – to echo a line I used it reviewing his previous novel – manages to both have his cake and eat it. (There’s probably a quantum physics joke in there, but let’s leave it and move on.) The universe of The Fractal Prince is literally littered with hard science concepts, or at least enough hints and plausible techno-jargon that you can’t really tell the difference. At the same time, it’s high-action space opera of the very best kind, full of stunning set pieces and future-powered superhumanisms that seem specifically tailored to drill straight into the still-teenaged hindbrain of your average SF geek and make it squee with delight.

 It’s hard to balance cleverness and credibility with awesome fun, but Rajaniemi appear to do it effortlessly. And speaking of magnificent bastards, protagonist Jean le Flambeur – already a wonderful character, combining various parts of a dozen criminal archetypes from the witty gentleman conman to the nerdy hacker/safecracker – here gets a chance to develop in interesting ways. In The Quantum Thief le Flambeur’s charm made him effortlessly likeable, but the hints of the older, nastier Jean he’d left behind made him deeply compelling. The Fractal Prince puts a hunter on his trail and raises the stakes, forcing le Flambeur to reveal a little more of himself – even as he cloaks himself in other people’s stories.

He’s not the only one who’s roleplaying, either, because at its heart this is a story about stories. le Flambeur and his partner-captors have left Mars behind for the ruins of Earth, and the majority of the novel takes place in the unashamedly Arabian days of the city of Sirr, which appears to be the only surviving bastion of flesh-and-blood humanity left on Earth.

That it has withstood the relentless all-consumption of the Sobornost minds is thanks to its stories – the self-replicating memes and body thieves of the wildcode desert are enough to make even the godlike uploaded intelligences of the Sobornost founders think twice.

Like the Martian Oubliette of The Quantum Thief, Sirr is an astonishingly imaginative and well-realised place. To tell you much about it would be to spoil the joy of discovery, but it’s a place of jinn and spices, of palaces and minarets built out sideways from the kilometre-long Shards of a fallen orbital.

And again like Oubliette, Sirr has its particular theme – a theme which, like that of Oubliette, informs the structure of its novel’s narrative. About halfway through the novel comes a line of apparently throwaway dialogue – ‘Sometimes it is more important to hear how a story is told than what the story is’ (p.154) – but it’s more telling than its circumstances suggest. The Fractal Prince wears the conceit gleefully, looping threads of narrative round and round itself in such a way that any attempt to describe their tangled skein would probably require a flipchart.

In lesser hands you’d end up with a confusing web, and in truth it’s a more sophisticated reader than me who can join all the dots on a single read-through – particularly what motivations the villain and even whether his plot makes any damn sense at all. But as with The Quantum Thief it just about ties together on re-reading, and while I might have hoped that in his second novel Rajaniemi’s might have found a way to tighten up one of the few flaws of his debut, the plot is (as that line I mentioned earlier suggests) almost irrelevant.

The same logic applies to the ideas. Rajaniemi’s science bears the stamp of authenticity, as you’d probably expect from a chap with a Ph.D in Mathematic Physics, but unlike a lot of hard science authors he manages to fold the technical aspects into the ongoing narrative in such a way that they enhance, rather than distracting from, the tale being told. Mainly this is thanks to Rajaniemi’s extreme aversion to the expositionary infodump; where we learn about the background details of his setting it’s organically, through the interaction of the characters rather than some intrusive narrator bringing the story to a crashing halt.

It’s slightly less subtly handled here than in the preceding novel – particularly an interlude regarding what feels like a Macguffin-to-be, the Kaminari Jewel  – but one of the many blessings of The Fractal Prince’s layered, self-referential narrative is that it makes the scene-breaking nature of the various flashbacks, flashsidewayses, and flashvirtuals a virtue rather than a flaw.

Nonetheless, you do get a better idea of what drives the various factions – particularly the Sobornost, who (while relatively incidental) were fairly inscrutable in The Quantum Thief. What you learn is genuinely original, and fairly mind-boggling at that. The Sobornost are making war on death, on the inherent unpredictability of quantum principles: ‘the taming of physics… taking the dice from God’s hand, the creation of a new Universe with new rules… where all those who died can live again, turning away from the laws written down by a mad god’ (p.142). It’s like the solar system’s most epic temper tantrum ever, railing against the unfairness of a random universe by retreating into a virtuality which follows more rational, classical rules. It’s genius.

About the only place the novel falls down – or stumbles, at least – is in the way it handles the payoff from the conclusion of The Quantum Thief. It feels a little too lightweight after all the drama and shenanigans back on Mars, though it does lead to an excellent virtual face-off in a forest full of menace and tigers, oh my. I think the likely cause of the problem is The Fractal Prince’s circular structure, again – by the time this last thread from the last novel is tied up, we’ve already moved on in triplicate.

But if the worst thing you can say about a book is that it hasn’t quite managed 0% plot fat, it does tend to suggest a reviewer struggling to find points of criticism. So go, reader – run to your local book emporium and buy The Fractal Prince. Read it now.

I’ll wait.

This review was originally written for