(The review was originally posted in the blog Random's 23 Cents: http://mybiochemicalsky.wordpress.com...
Step into the Palace of Stories, taste their body of fractals…
I gobbled The Fractal Prince up in just a few days, hungry to devour as many pages as possible during my daily commute between tube stations. Or maybe trying to slow down and savor them, sorry to see the book come to an end. Anything inducing such paradoxical states of mind must be more than just good. The follow-up to The Quantum Thief is full of such curiosities. It is pretty short as novels go and yet it feels vast, infinite even. The story is involved to the point of obfuscation, but each day I would sink effortlessly into its winding ways and half an hour later would pop out of the underground, one or more self-contained stories sparkling like exotic jewels in my mind. It is a labyrinth and a room full of mirrors where you can easily lose yourself (occasionally even your self) and where subliminal glimpses of massive creatures moving hidden underneath the surface will startle you, grand colorful illusions will dazzle, memes will burrow and most of what you know will be revealed as nothing more than shifting sands.
I don’t mean to suggest that Rajaniemi has already peaked as an author and his writing is a thesaurus of perfection. On the contrary, I think his talent has a lot of space to grow, his skills could be even sharper, the writing more profound. He is no Nabokov as of yet, but who knows where his craft will lead him. The Fractal Prince is incredibly bold in terms of formal experimentation, it holds true to the promise of its title and this alone makes the novel one of the most interesting reads of the year. In terms of content its predecessor – The Quantum Thief – dealt mostly with information privacy, veils and the rewriting of history. The Fractal Prince is even more ambitions: it focuses on the fractal nature of minds and stories, on the hidden warp and weft of information that structures the world.
This is a stunningly ambitious undertaking, even more so when you realize that Rajaniemi has tried to shape the plot itself as a fractal. On the surface of it the story is told by just a couple of characters. Beneath it though there is a cacophony of voices, each of them eager to tell its own story. The book is deliberately structured along the lines of One Thousand and One Nights and just like a fractal it exposes layers within layers within layers the deeper you go. Of course, the best a work of fiction can accomplish is an illusion of a fractal, but I’ll be damned if Hannu isn’t a master illusionist. Thus, The Fractal Prince resembles a strange breed of fruit – onion-like and many-headed, with smaller bulbs hiding within larger ones, their skins suffused with surprising flavors, which, when tasted, wake up unexpected associations, all of that fitting in a twisted multi-aspected mandala that nevertheless makes perfect sense. And then, when you are at least sure that you know your location on that bizarre map, you find it is curling back on itself and spewing you where you were in the beginning, or rather encapsulating the beginning, so that you wonder whether there is any point in keeping track of things or if everything isn’t just an endless ouroboros.
Somewhere along the Cosmic Highway, the trickster ex-god of thieves Jean le Flambeur, Mieli from Oort and her ship Perhonen are trying to gain leverage against the ruler of the Solar System and survive the Hunter that is after them. Jean is desperately trying to open a Schrödinger box holding a captive god. To do that he will have to hack into a zoku router and possibly kill a billion of hypothetical kittens. At the same time on Earth, in the last surviving human city – Sirr-in-the-sky – two sisters are playing a dangerous game of politics and story-telling. Tawaddud Gomelez, a stigmatized princess of Sirr, embodiment-slave and jinn’s whore, is this book’s Isidore, playing counterpoint to Jean’s story line. As in the previous one, the two eventually merge and this time the convergence is even more exquisite.
Not that I didn’t enjoy the young Martian detective and his zoku girlfriend but I found Tawaddud much more human and easy to relate to. The reasons for that are probably rooted in the respective environments of the novels. The Oubliette society of the previous installment had a working formula to beat death, it was gamified to the extreme, operating according to rules that resemble top-down-designed narratives. Even though still human, it was much cleaner, more abstracted somehow, its problems were issues of information privacy and security. Tawaddud’s world is much messier and fuzzy-bounded. It is a world of broken dreams, poormen and richmen, civilization and desert, jinns and body thieves. The story-within-story template captures that effectively, especially in Tawaddud’s character, which is probably the most complex so far. Given that a certain lack of depth in characterization remains as my biggest problem with the series, I feel that this is an important improvement and hope to see more of it in the books to come. Mieli too receives a more human portraiture in this book. Hers is a beautiful love story, though, sadly, told in too few pages. The supporting role award in this one, however, goes to Perhonen. A lovely butterfly of a spider-ship, wish I knew her. Jean, just as before, remains an enigma, a character that I still can’t make my about.
Baited by her sister Dunyazad, Tawaddud enters the politics of Sirr, which turns out to be a dizzying mess. It is bound to be, really, when tiny and unimportant post-Collapse Earth suddenly becomes a vortex of power play in the Solar System. Amidst that and Jean’s exploits, much is revealed about the world of the far future, much more than in The Quantum Thief. A lot of your expectations and understanding of the previous book will possibly not stand, at least some of mine didn’t. Even events that seemed explicitly disambiguated on Mars are complicated further, and for that reason it is probably a good idea to reread The Quantum Thief before diving into this one (an even better reason is that it’s great fun). A lot of the events in this book too may seem somewhat opaque, especially some threads in the explosive end part. The author firmly refuses to spoon feed his readers with justifications and explanations, and that is rather great and admirable, even if it is the source of occasional confusion. But there are simply so many miracles to show in this universe:
“Like Mieli, the ship is an uneasy amalgalm of Oortian and Sobornost, remade on Venus, hidden weapons and quantum armour and virs and gogols and antimatter, embedded in väki smartcoral like diamond insects in amber.”
No wonder there is an unchecked profusion of noun phrases, non-finite and verbless clauses on every page:
“Mieli floats in the spimescape, a ghost within the ghost of the ship. It is a representation of the worldlines all smartmatter leaves behind, from every nut and bolt of Perhonen to the System-wide machinery of the Highway. Reality overlaid with interpretation and explanation, cold physics caught in a cobweb of meaning.”
It is a feature of Rajaniemi’s writing that I’m not sure I like without reservations – coupled with the present tense narrative, it definitely contributes a somewhat static quality to the perception of imagery. Which is a paradox in itself, as The Fractal Prince is anything but static. It moves at the speed of light, literally, leaps and bounds and twists and never desists with the deluge of miracles. Now that I’m writing this, it strikes me that I can very easily visualize the narrative as a comic strip, delivering a rapid sequence of still images, each one etched on the page/mind with fastidious detail. The detached narrative voice that comes with noun-heavy writing is then transmogrified from a potential flaw to method of story-telling lifted from a slightly different media: semi-disembodied, semi-character-centered. An approach rather cleverly-fitted to the nature of the story; after all, it must be very difficult to depict post-human godlings, then why not tell it all from the vantage point of a high-speed camera, able to capture with fidelity everything from visuals to states of mind, though not necessarily able to explain it? I can almost imagine a graphic novel adaptation, or why not a quirky anime series with sufficiently brilliant art to render the awesomeness of Rajaniemi’s universe.
The wild metaphor chase in the last paragraph might seem too stretched but this is actually one of the coolest things about Rajaniemi’s writing. It invites you to construct meaning without ever slowing down to take a breath. To echo a famous cognitive linguist, it taps into the wide backstage of cognition and makes you work damn hard for your money. The amount of information analysis, conceptual blending and linguistic reverse-engineering one has to engage in to make sense of the text is staggering. Even more staggering is that the effort doesn’t really feel like work, it is simply that rewarding and enjoyable. Just think how much more your brain needs to accomplish in order to decode a thought-up word like “cleptography”. It requires accesses to at least two conceptual domains and the respective schemata associated with them; then you have to make the two work together as one and situate the new notion within the context of the novel, itself spun from countless such loci of meaning. Scale that up a thousand-fold and it might give you a relative idea how much on fire your brain is while processing such a text. The fact that you do want to process it is a sure sign that it packs a whole lot of pleasurable affective punch.
In fact, another element that potentially could be seen as a flaw is justified in a similar fashion. Rajaniemi might not be feeding us information in a very non-hard-sciences-academician-friendly fashion but his books are no strangers to occasional info-dumps. Without those they would take decades to write and would fill thousands of pages. Yet, here the notorious nemesis of good worldbuilding sits naturally, filtered through the idea of the Sobornost metaselves that tirelessly steer gogols to the fulfillment of The Great Common Task. And trust me, you will enjoy the info-dumps and fret over there being so little of them. The scale of Rajaniemi’s ideas and canvas-painting is awe-inspiring, sharing a league with The Hyperion Cantos. Which is veritable feat, to cram so much in such a lean page count. That is why such a methodology – of using language to uncover just the tip of meaning and let the reader figure the rest out – is entirely functional and adequate in this case. Moreover, Rajaniemi uses it to appeal to the senses too, it’s not reserved for the intellect alone. Consider these two instances of synaesthetic writing, quite common in the book:
“Below, the shopkeeper coughs again, a mucous, jagged sound.”
“Their descent brings a rush of waste heat and a tangy smell of overclocked metabolisms.”
But then again, to quote a famous Sobornost warmind: “Matter and mind. Dualism. Primitive distinctions. All is information.” So why should a writer’s method distinguish between mind and body?
The fabric of post-human wonders is especially dense on Earth. Sirr-in-the-sky is a proud heir to the Oubliette as one of the more jaw-dropping SF cities ever imagined. Its kilometer-long vertical Shards, remnants of a ruined space station, lighting up the night, the muhtasib aristocrats in palaces high up and the commoners on the ground, the angel-nets and the gogol merchants’ ships, the Fast Ones, the mutalibun and the body-thieves in the dessert… Ah, I will let you find about those on your own, explore the fractals in your unique way.
Apart from the sheer and stark awesomeness of the world and the intricacy of the plot, there are also the Big Ideas. And these are really huge in the second book, having leveled-up significantly. The motif of fractals is not spliced to the formal DNA of the novel merely for the coolness factor, it reflects a serious preoccupation with the mystery of minds and stories, myths and gods, past and future. The Great Task of the Sobornost comes into crisp resolution and its vision is pitched against the much more elusive essence of classic humanity and the zokus. The book trades in complex questions, such as why we need storytelling, what is consciousness (a strange loop, a self-loop?) and where to draw the boundary between human and non-human. Ideas that, as Rajaniemi admits, are pickpocketed from thinkers as diverse as Douglas Hofstadter, Andy Clarke and Carl Jung. The notion of memes/archetypes is particularly central to the book:
“But like my friend Isaac taught me a long ago on Mars, alcohol is not just about chemistry: it’s the meme, the feeling. Bacchus speaking in my head and making it all better.”
Jean himself is a kind of meme, the trickster archetype embodied in flesh, and this starts to show more and more as the series progresses. It will be interesting to read about the zoku point of view regarding these conundrums in the later chapters of the story. They seem particularly fond of untidy narratives and yet scorn run-of-the-mill humans as “meme-zombies”. Anyway, Rajaniemi does a fantastic job at presenting a metaphysical vision of a universe made of information. At certain points some of the ideas reminded me of Philip Dick’s deeply disturbing but insightfully graceful form of mysticism, only operationalized and made sane. The Finnish writer explores those problem spaces in his usual brisk fashion, so don’t expect a comprehensive argument, but be prepared to get you mind blown here and there along the fractal edges.
And if you have endured this review to its end and still aren’t convinced that The Fractal Prince could well be the best SF novel in 2012 (let’s see what Iank Banks has to offer before any rash pronouncements), consider the following. This is a book that can pull off this sentence: “I’m going to find a job that does not involve breaking into giant machines full of lesbian dragon sex.” Nothing more to say.