Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel, The Quantum Thief, announced a major new talent in science fiction.
The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz, 302pp, £20
Rajaniemi, originally from Finland and now resident in Edinburgh, can take his place alongside Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod and Andrew Crumey as a part of the burgeoning “speculative fiction” retort to the genre predominance of tartan noir. The Fractal Prince more than delivers on the promise of The Quantum Thief. There is no doubt that science fiction fans will rush to buy it, and I earnestly hope that readers who think themselves constitutionally incapable of reading science fiction read it as well. It tackles serious and intellectually daunting ideas in crisp, disorienting prose: exactly what that chimera “the literary novel” is supposed to do.
The Quantum Thief introduced Jean de Flambeur, a notorious thief in the model of Allain and Souvestre’s Fantômas or Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin. The book opened with him in a prison which constantly replays the Prisoner’s Dilemma (co-operate, betray or self- sacrifice); his consciousness rebooted every time he loses. He is set free by an Oortian called Mieli in her spidership Perhonen, and offered his freedom if he completes one final heist. To do so, he first has to retrieve his hidden memories on Oubliette, one of the ambulant cities of Mars where the citizens have evolved a sixth sense of privacy, where wealth is measured in time and where all subjects have to take their turn as a disembodied intelligence controlling the machines that move and sustain their city. It hinted at the wider narratives: mankind has not reached other stars, but has colonised the solar system in interesting and Darwinianly intriguing ways. The local story implied wider and wilder narratives. These come into focus in The Fractal Prince.
Jean and Mieli, under the guidance of their slightly sadistic employer, are sent to steal something from Earth. All of Earth has become a debatable, fractured land. The native humans, recovering from a series of wars, have secured an enclave from the solar system’s emerging superpower, the Sobornost. There is an entente that is almost cordiale.
On Earth, Tawaddud, the daughter of a leading politician, is allowed to investigate the murder of another politician, under Sobornost observation. The aims of the Sobornost, hitherto slightly occluded, become clear. They believe, fanatically and fundamentally, in their crusade to upload all consciousnesses ever and save them (religiously and literally) in a “better” virtual reality. Those who would prefer the grim grit of reality are to be cajoled, or forced, towards their singularity.
The Fractal Prince fuses the fin-de-siècle cynicism of Flambeur with an Arabian Nights-infused image of future Earth. The Terrans of this post-human world are storytellers, and story is the one thing the Sobornost cannot abide: what if they were to recreate and upload a fictitious person, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding rather than Thomas John Woodward of The Voice and It’s Not Unusual fame, also known as Tom Jones? As we learn more about what Jean has to steal, it becomes clear that there are factions and feuds within the supposedly monolithic Sobornost, and that his theft will have implications for all the political parties involved. Fictitious narrative is only slightly less distasteful to the Sobornost than quantum physics itself – “quantum filth” as they call it. While their chief antagonists, the zoku, a clan seemingly descended from gamers, revel in indeterminacy, chaos and the strangle entangling of the quantum realm, the Sobornost view it as the existing universe’s prime design fault, one that will be eradicated in their utopia.
Rajaniemi does not make many concessions to the reader, which is one of the aspects I admire most about the novel. There is no ungainly “info-dump” to explain the terminology: the reader has to hold certain nouns in his or her head, gradually assembling from the context the necessary clues to decode this new world. Or, if you’re puzzle-minded, the etymology gives some hints (so, for example, the gogols are consciousness software that can be transferred between bodies, and the name refers to the Russian author Nikolai Gogol, author of Dead Souls. Similarly, the Sobornost derives from Russian orthodox spirituality, and means literally a “spiritual community of many jointly living people”. Founded by Kireevsky and Khomyakov, the 19th century Sobornost opposed “European individualism”, which gives the reader more detail about the ideology driving its fictional counterpart).
The great joy of science fiction is the interplay between being able to imagine anything and the constraints that then places on the author. Rajaniemi can’t be accused of stinting on the first. This is not, in the derisive phrase of Star Trek fans, “forehead of the week” invention. From the crystal webs that make up the spaceship to the technological jinns and flying carpets on Earth, the imagination here is unconstrained and capacious. But this is equalled by a rigour with which the ideas are treated. Uploading consciousnesses may mean there is a kind of immortality available to the characters, but it comes with ethical and moral baggage that prevents any facile deus ex machina. (In fact, the idea of the “god from the machine” is a key element of the narrative). The book has a pleasing double structure, with chapters alternating between Jean and Tawaddud, with inset stories within the chapters reminiscent of its Arabian Nights heritage. Narrating, in The Fractal Prince, is revolutionary, with story itself a kind of binding and a form of computation: a story always tells more than its mere narrative. There is a barnstorming and epic battle, and a smart revelation about Jean de Flambeur’s origins that set up the final part of the trilogy neatly.
Trans-humanism or post-humanism sets new challenges for the novel, a form which for so long has been the repository of our liberal enlightenment ideal of the self as a unique and integrated phenomenon. Writers from each part of the literary spectrum have been responding in more and more interesting ways to this change; from Tom McCarthy’s self-alienated, repetition-bound narrator in Remainder to M John Harrison’s Light trilogy, in which several characters turn out to be the same character. Rajaniemi adds his own particular spin to these ideas, and it will be fascinating to see where he takes the novel next.
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