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The Fractal Prince
Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz paperback £12.99

review by Patrick Hudson

Hard SF space opera is the dirty heart of the genre. You know the kind of thing: set in the far future, plausible super-technology, internecine rivalries between political enemies, and exploding planets, perhaps even the fate of the universe or all human life at stake. There's something about it that only sci-fi fans get. It's a line no literary fiction parvenu has yet crossed; perhaps they tend to look at SF as either satire or fable, a mix of Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Kurt Vonnegut, and Angela Carter? I think it takes a writer genuinely steeped in the genre to produce this type of book. It takes an appreciation of imagining for its own sake that seems at odds with the puritanical desire to tell 'the truth'.

In its purist form SF is a philosophical genre and these far future societies can be used to represent truths of a different sort to those rooted in the real world. Great contemporary exponents of this kind of novel include Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, and Alastair Reynolds, but it's been at the heart of genre SF since Isaac Asimov, C.L. Moore, and A.E. van Vogt.

This is the genre sweet spot that Hannu Rajaniemi is aiming for and his aim is pretty good. In The Fractal Prince, Rajaniemi takes us back to his densely imagined head-fuck of a future Solar system introduced in The Quantum Thief. Like its predecessor, this book overflows with cleverly thought out futuristic knick-knacks. Despite the feverish imagination at work, the setting feels plausible and consistent, and is occupied by a satisfyingly strange ecosystem where the borders between the technological and the natural organic worlds have gotten a bit blurry.

Rajaniemi raises the philosophical problems that come with idea of consciousness as software and matter as information and fearlessly pursues them to their conclusions. He embodies them in a dazzling variety of multiple and layered selves, parasitic living software that can re-program the mind and body, and lashings of high-energy physics throwing off flashes of Hawking radiation like Van De Graf generators in a Frankenstein movie.

He also has some interesting things to say about stories. He explores how we use stories to remember ourselves and construct our identity, just as the time-obsessed people of Mars hinted at mortal fears in The Quantum Thief. The theme of storytelling is rather cleverly woven into the structure and setting of The Fractal Prince, pursuing it not just through the words and actions of the characters but in the shape of the novel itself.

It's all good meaty sci-fi, and the sort of stuff that I usually enjoy immensely but, I have to admit, that this book defeated me. I'm pretty sure I understood events as they happened: I understood that Jean and company were off to Earth to recover a vital doohickey, and that Tawaddud was a younger daughter living under a cloud cajoled into being nice to potential gentleman allies by her father on a far-future Earth. I could even understand the immediate threats that confronted them in the course of the story. But I could never grasp the underlying importance of it all.

I think Rajaniemi's style is just too dry for me. I needed more background to understand the setting and the forces that drive it so I could put the character ambitions in context. I admit that I'm the kind of reader who likes to have all this plot stuff laid out clearly up front. This is the type of book, on the other hand, that waits until the end to explain what's been going on, who exactly was double-crossing who. Even so, I found the big reveal didn't really clear anything up for me. I could tell whether characters were alive or dead, and if they'd won or lost, but I could never figure out what they were fighting about.

The same was true of The Quantum Thief, where I found the events surrounding Jean le Flambeur and the Pellegrini utterly opaque, but, in that novel, there was the hugely enjoyable section on Mars. The Fractal Prince repeats this formula with a second main strand set in Sirr, the last human city on Earth, but Tawaddud and the city of Sirr never grabbed me like Isidore and Oubliette. I'm not keen on Arabian Nights style fantasies in general and there's inevitably the sense of a metaphor being stretched - disembodied intelligences are genies, you can use ambient nanotech to spirit a flying carpet out of nowhere, and ciphers and security codes are like the seals and symbols and secret names of orientalist fantasy magic. I also found Tawaddud a far less compelling character than Isidore. Particularly in the early chapters, I couldn't decide if I was supposed to deride her poor-little-rich-girl problems or sympathise with her family struggles.

I don't want to damn this book completely, though, or put you off, if this is your sort of thing. It's my sort of thing too and, even though had problems with some of it, I still enjoyed quite a bit of it. Rajaniemi's speculative imagination and thematic ambition continue to scrape up against the problem of consciousness in interesting ways and the action is always dizzyingly compelling. Having read two of the three, I'll definitely be back for the conclusion, to see if the pieces all fall into place for me. Even if they don't, I'm sure there'll be enough dizzying hyper-future amazement to make the journey worthwhile.

The Fractal Prince

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