The Causal Angel

Hannu Rajaniemi
The Causal Angel Cover

The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi is Brilliant, but Difficult


As I approached the final act of The Causal Angel, Hannu Rajaniemi's Jean Le Flambeur Series that started with The Quantum Thief, there was an uptick in the action, a movement toward battle and denouement. Giant space ships and lethal weapons were brought to bear, planetary defenses were invoked, and warriors on both sides came to grips...

Unfortunately, I'm not sure I understood half of it. The weapons, vehicles and concepts seemed to require a robust understanding of quantum and theoretical physics and computer science, neither of which I can claim, even for all of my interest in science and science fiction. The world that Rajaniemi has imagined is on the other side of the singularity, and it is a world that is difficult to recognize as descending from our own.

So, clearly, it's brilliant. I just struggled to understand and relate. Call me stupid, call me dense, but I see the series as a brilliant, but missed opportunity.

I very badly wanted to love the book, and I spent some time clicking through Google researching the terms and concepts, using both a wiki about the series and Wikipedia itself. It helped, but the more I read and the more obscure jargon that I bumped up against the more I became convinced that my efforts would be futile. The learning curve is steep, and Hannu does little to assist his reader, utilizing in action descriptions that are short of a helpful infodumps, but oh! how I would have loved one.

Sure, usually I prefer that the author focus on the story, showing only a glimpse of the world building that is beyond view, hinting at what is out there beyond the action. The Causal Angel does this. But because the world is so far from our own, the glimpses are insufficient. It makes for difficult reading.

It doesn't help that the story picks up immediately from where it left off, requiring some back tracking by the reader to refresh memory. And my understanding of what was going on in the plot was never really crystal clear in the first place. Compound everything that I missed in The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince, and now The Causal Angel together, and I'm sure that I was unable to enjoy the story to the fullest.

That said, I still liked the book, and though I'll have difficulty recommending it to more than the most hard-core of science fiction fans, I really DID enjoy it. Rajaniemi has a brilliant vision of the future, extrapolating in a way that I think is far more accurate that a lot of other science fiction. Additionally, he understands how to tell a story and, but for the high barrier that the theoretical physics and computer science presents, does spin an interesting tale.

I'm glad I read it. I just wish I could have lost myself in it a bit easier. Escaping into the imagined world is hard when I have to keep coming out to look up terms I don't understand or concepts that weren't even clear in the first book, let alone the second or third. Understanding them is clearly necessary to the plot, and they just aren't easy. If the ease of access had been greater, I would have put Hannu on the list of Hugo worthy writers. His vision is there and his writing is in the neighborhood that should get him awards. He imagines a world where consciousness has transcended the physical, where people living in a constant state of MMORPG, where copies of the self can be made, saved, and utilized in computing power. It's mind-blowing.

But the conceptual difficulty puts the novel out of reach of many, and that's unfortunate. I will read whatever Rajaniemi writes next because I am curious what else he has in the quiver. I hope it will be more accessible, because he is brilliant, his writing is brilliant, and his vision is brilliant. But I hope he can also make it accessible.