The Fractal Prince

Hannu Rajaniemi
The Fractal Prince Cover

The Fractal Prince

Scott Laz

"If reality is not what you want it to be, change it."

--The Fractal Prince, Chapter 20

Reviews of Hannu Rajaniemi's novels always seem to include a warning to the potential reader. They can be a frustrating experience, since it is often difficult to pin down precisely what is happening. And even when events are fairly clear, the "why" behind plot development, and even sometimes who is really involved, can be tricky questions. So, yes, I'll jump on that bandwagon and point out that anyone looking for transparent narrative prose, along with straightforward plotting and character development, might want to look elsewhere. But for those willing to dive into the deep end and work a bit to swim upstream, the rewards will become apparent soon enough. The Quantum Thief (2010) and The Fractal Prince (2012) (the first two books of a proposed trilogy) represent the most interesting development of the science fiction novel I've experienced since William Gibson's early work in the 1980s.

There are two potential sources of difficulty or pleasure, depending on your perspective on these things, in Rajaniemi's novels, one new and science fictional, the other quite old fashioned. Most obviously, the reader will immediately notice the prevalent use of neologisms, along with the complete absence of infodumps. Their meaning of the strange terminology must be gathered through context (though the etymology of the terms can provide clues, for those willing to do a little research), and this difficulty is compounded by the fact that the concepts themselves are inherently difficult, even when straightforwardly explained. (Those familiar with the fine points of quantum physics, and experts on the frontiers of artificial intelligence and posthuman biology will probably catch on more quickly than the rest of us.)

From our orbit around 90 Antiope, the zoku router looked like a tree with mirror leaves, two kilometres in diameter, floating in space. But inside it is sheer Escherian madness. The processing nodes are blue glowing spheroids, ranging in size from hot-air balloons to dust motes, moving and tumbling in spirals around each other, opening into infinite corridors. But like a vampire, I have no reflection... I'm in the middle of hacking into yet another processing node, a giant amoeba the size of my head. It is a rippling, transparent bubble, with an irregular crystalline structure within. Much of zoku q-tech is alive, and so is this thing--constantly hungry, eating quantum states from the photon stream through the router and encoding them into complex organic molecules. I'm about to feed it a treat.

Such descriptive prose is actually quite specific, but the effect remains somewhat vague, due to the combination of imprecisely defined (to the reader, at least) terminology, and the fact that what is being described is not entirely graspable. The combination of the mechanical and the organic is characteristic of the world of the novel. This world is far removed from our own, but how far in the future is indeterminate. Artificial intelligence has long since advanced to the point that minds can be uploaded, duplicated (or stolen and manipulated). Many of the encounters portrayed in the novel take place in virtual realities ("virs"), between individuals whose identities may not be what they seem, since the combination of computer technology, brain uploading, matter fabrication, and quantum physical manipulation (if I can call it that), means that the meaning of "reality" comes into question, and appearances, however carefully described, may or may not be what they seem.

This purely science fictional aspect of the story dovetails nicely with the more old-fashioned source of uncertainty in the novel. The character of Jean le Flambeur is based on Arsene Lupin, the "gentleman-thief" whose adventures were chronicled by Maurice LeBlanc between 1909 and 1939. Lupin operates outside the law, but is ultimately on the side of good, and this ambiguity is mirrored in Le Flambeur, who uses disguise, subterfuge, manipulation, and other questionable means to achieve his ends. Le Flambeur is a con man, and Rajaniemi's plots are capers in which the real goals of le Flambeur, along with his reluctant cohort Mieli, pilot of the intelligent spaceship Perhonen, and their employer, the ancient Sobornost pellegrini, are not entirely clear until the end of the story (and even then, not all questions are answered). The Sobornost, incidentally, are powerful uploaded minds who can manufacture legions of bodies carrying their consciousness to do their bidding. They control the inner planets of the solar system, and have the goal of eventually uploading all of humanity into their collective in order to conquer death. (That was my interpretation, anyway.) But sometimes their individual motivations put them in conflict with each other, or lead them onto their own potentially destructive paths. It is the conflict between pellegrini and the Sobornost chen, whose motives, despite the fact that he has long since become comparable to a god, lie in a childhood trauma, that set novel in motion.

In The Fractal Prince, unlike The Quantum Thief, much of the action takes place on Earth, which has been devastated by previous actions of the Sobornost. The only thing that saves the remaining inhabitants of the city Sirr (which seems to be somewhere in or near the Middle East), is the unleashing of "wildcode"--a physically manifested computer virus that is dangerous to the Sobornost--in the desert outside the city. The novel moves back and forth between le Flambeur and Meili, headed for Earth as part of their mission for pellegrini, and Tawaddud, daughter of the ruling house of Sirr, who has her own history of relationships with uploaded minds, until their stories intertwine in the final half of the novel.

The mystery caper plot, which keeps most of the characters' motivations uncertain, combined with the hard-to-grasp settings and action, keeps the reader guessing much of the time, but this only leads to a greater reward once things begin to come together. As the context becomes more familiar, the descriptions begin to make more sense. As the double-crosses and mistaken identities are resolved in a series of "a-ha" moments, the novel comes even further into focus.

The theme of the novel follows from the nature of the world presented, as the shifting nature of reality points to the growing importance of stories. The stories of characters pepper the narrative, and stories serve as currencies in some parts of Rajaniemi's future world. When the virtual and the real become indistinguishable, stories can take on their own reality. Can we tell our own stories, or must we accept the stories told by others?

The ending of The Fractal Prince is both apocalyptic and transcendent (and, of course, a little confusing), and I eagerly await the trilogy's conclusion. Hannu Rajaniemi, in his first two novels, is pushing science fiction into the twenty-first century with style.

The ending is both apocalyptic and transcendent (and, of course, a little confusing), and I eagerly await the trilogy's conclusion. Hannu Rajaniemi, in his first two novels, is pushing science fiction into the twenty-first century with style.