NOVEMBER 27, 2012
AS A READER of speculative fiction, I am a seasoned traveler in unfamiliar landscapes, accustomed to figuring out new language and customs as I negotiate through the terrain of a plot. An SF novel can seem a great deal like a spirited travelogue, with the author serving as tour guide. (Presumably that sense of things is what drove Diana Wynne Jones to write The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land; quest novels, with their epic journeys, are particularly like travelogues.) Some authors are solicitous, almost obtrusive tour guides, offering maps, glossaries, family trees, appendices with supplementary history, or outright infodumps at relevant opportunities. For example, in the classic Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny provides a full-service introduction to the Amber universe with an amnesiac narrator, allowing the reader to learn about Amber as the protagonist does.
In contrast, Hannu Rajaniemi, architect of a future that bears a strong resemblance to fantasy (and who, incidentally, claims Zelazny as an influence), is decidedly more reserved in his involvement; he’s a travel agent who will arrange your journey to the smallest detail, but once you’ve set off, he’s unlikely to provide you with any further assistance, other than making sure you arrive at your destination. What that destination might be may not be discernable for some time, even while en route. Rajaniemi, a Finnish physicist who runs an A.I. think tank in Edinburgh and writes exquisitely in a language that presumably wasn’t his first, may be doing us the courtesy of respecting our intelligence. He simply assumes we’ll catch up. Readers (myself among them) may therefore come to the end of Rajaniemi’s new novel, The Fractal Prince, feeling more than a little lost, and perhaps somewhat inadequate as a result. Here’s a sample piece of action from partway through the book, a space battle that seems to require somewhat more knowledge of string theory (Rajaniemi’s specialty) than even your typical science-savvy SF reader has, to parse:
The Sobornost fleet falls upon the quantum filth from the shadow of the cosmic string.
The warmind coordinates the attack from the battle vir…. He sees through the eyes of all of his copybrothers, from the lowest nanomissile warhead mind to his own elevated branch in the oblast ship.
He needs all of them to surf the deficit angle that the string cuts out of spacetime, a gravitational lensing effect that makes the zoku see double. A scar in the vacuum left by the Spike, the string is less than a femtometer thick, ten kilometers long, looped — and more massive than Earth, accreting clouds of hydrogen and dust like flesh around a bone.
A bit more explication of the physics involved (“surfing the deficit angle”?) would really be helpful, more helpful than the description of the Schrödinger’s Cat problem given earlier in the book — that thought experiment is such a familiar part of the geek zeitgeist that explaining it is superfluous.
While still requiring the occasional headscratch, the previous book in the series, the brilliant The Quantum Thief, was actually quite straightforward in its plot. In the far future, millions of versions of the Lupinesque thief Jean le Flambeur languish in a virtual prison, forced to endure endless enactments of the Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario. One of these versions is rescued and hired to steal something; before he can do so, however, he must recover various key memories that he previously hid in the not-too-subtly-named Martian city of Oubliette.
In The Fractal Prince, we learn more about what this “something” is. The MacGuffin that Le Flambeur once tried to steal and is now attempting to seize again is the Kaminari jewel, which can apparently “disable Planck locks.” Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim about advanced technologies being indistinguishable from magic is in full force here — apparently what we’re talking about is a high-tech philosopher’s stone that, by defeating entropy, will theoretically end death forever, although it’s not clear how.
The autocratic, awesomely powerful Matjek Chen (the fractal prince of the title) has the jewel, but, as with any truly puissant magical object, he can’t access it unless he is pure of heart. Chen requires the help of a much earlier version of himself, an upload of his personality made when he was a young child. This younger self is buried on Earth, in a desert swarming with physically active rogue software and bodiless humans (known colorfully as jinn) seeking fleshly hosts. The sequences set on Earth are a lovely and mythic bit of business that go a long way toward transforming this work of high-tech-physics SF into a kind of quest fantasy (although that doesn’t always make it easier to understand).
Of course, in order for le Flambeur to steal the younger self, he must assume a disguise that requires him to break inside a virtual puzzle box, which requires him to make illicit use of a computer system floating in space, etc., etc. Rajaniemi perhaps would like us to view these steps as pieces of the ultimate scam coming together, but they end up seeming more like a Rube Goldberg device. A glossary for the tech-talk, an appendix with historical background, or a more comprehensive infodump linking the steps of the plan together would go a long way towards making the thief’s progress seem less random. On the other hand, they would probably ruin the mystery the author is trying to preserve. He definitely seems to enjoy the slow reveal. The fact that half the narrative is time-shifted, occurring after the other half, and that it’s not initially clear this is the case, adds to the confusion.
Rajaniemi may also be suffering from middle-volume syndrome (I think we’re dealing with an intended trilogy). Many authors have difficulty keeping up the momentum of a first volume (particularly when the bar was set so high), and to provide more than simply set-up the action for the conclusion.
But perhaps the dizzying landscape is not the point of this journey; perhaps even the journey isn’t the point of the novel — maybe we should be focusing on our traveling companions instead.
Le Flambeur remains a supremely enigmatic figure, a snarky Coyote-level Trickster who relies on masks and masquerades to perpetrate his thefts (which makes it even harder for one to discern his true self … if there even is a true self). Who is Jean le Flambeur? Although he is not one of the Founders of the Sobornost, the godlike ruling beings who include Chen and le Flambeur’s employer, Joséphine Pellegrini, he knew them centuries ago when they were ordinary human beings. He seems to share their understanding of the inner workings of the universe, even if he doesn’t have quite their ability to interfere (although clearly, he does try). The immortality of the Founders is not available to the hoi polloi (otherwise Chen wouldn’t need the jewel), but it is apparently available to le Flambeur, although Rajaniemi has not yet explained how or why.
Le Flambeur’s motivations (other than self-preservation and profit) are decidedly murky, and his goals are less than perfectly explained. This seems to be at least partially because Jean le Flambeur isn’t entirely clear on who he is or what he wants. He’s not even sure if he still has the right to call himself Jean le Flambeur, given that he failed to recover the majority of the memories he left on Mars, and what he does recall about that earlier self he doesn’t much like. Nor does he care for another version of himself, the cruel megalomaniac Jean le Roi, whom we met in The Quantum Thief.
How much of one’s memory does one require to continue a particular personality? What does identity mean to the Founders, who exist as entire “copyclans” of virtual and embodied clones who branched off at discrete intervals, and who possess varying amounts of key memories, depending on what level of task they’ve been designated to carry out? The Founders have so many copies of various types that their last names are used as generic lower-case terms to refer to their copies: chens, sumigurus, pellegrinis, etc. They’ve essentially become hiveminds, and they seem to be very comfortable with that.
Contrast that with the feelings of Mieli, Oortian warrior and spaceship pilot, who, in order to save le Flambeur in the previous volume, agreed to allow her personality to be copied. She spends a great deal of time worrying that she’s cheapened her value as an individual, only to create an army of herselves who achieve martyrdom in the book’s climactic battle scene — and by doing so, manages to reclaim her sense of honor.
SF has wrestled with these issues for decades, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to Star Trek transporter accidents, through to William Gibson’s “The Winter Market,” Charles Platt’s The Silicon Man, all the way to Tony Daniel’s Metaplanetary and Superluminal (these two particularly presage Rajaniemi’s work), and Charles Stross’s and Cory Doctorow’s recently published The Rapture of the Nerds. The debate never seems to stop. As a former student of cognitive science, I find the inquiry into the meaning of self a great deal more accessible than the physics; but then, even if we haven’t achieved wide-ranging space travel yet, we’ve all got a self already (at least, I know I do, and I assume you do, or we couldn’t be communicating).
“You are not making any sense, you bastard,” Mieli says.
”It doesn’t matter,” the thief says. “We won. And I have a plan.”
Even if he often perplexes, Rajaniemi offers enough to think about and enough moments of beauty that I’m willing to trust he also has a plan, and to hope that, in the next installment, it becomes more transparent.