The Fractal Prince
I bowled through The Fractal Prince in my last, mad bid to read the best of 2012, getting a brand new library copy of the book just as the year expired. It is yet another stop on the 2012 Hard SF Revival Grand Tour, proving conclusively that Analog readers need not yet weep for the death of SF’s core subgenre. Parenthetically, I thought that my Best of 2012 list would be utterly mainstream and unoriginal. Instead, I find that it is overwhelmingly Hard SF and not at all like others I am reading. I’m not sure why this surprised me. Digression aside, The Fractal Prince presents several challenges to the reviewer, which forces this post further into more appropriate territory for The 2013 Science Fiction Experience. Why? Because Rajaniemi’s novel clearly illustrates the change that has overtaken SF in the last decade or two.
First, the book and its challenges. The largest is basic comprehension. Between string theory, quantum physics, and Rajaniemi’s oft cryptic narrative style, I did not understand large patches of the book. This is generally not a problem, since I don’t really need to know what a “qdot” is, the ins and outs of space battles, or why exactly something works the way it does, but I confess to scratching my head a bit at the end, double checking myself to make sure I knew what had just happened. A certain type of reader is going to go bonkers at this. As a reviewer, the swirling question marks make it difficult to pen a coherent and knowledgeable response, since I spend as much time going over basic plot points in my head for comprehension as I usually do with analysis.
That said, the story sweeps along, pushing all willing readers before it with a certain inexorability. Rajaniemi has utmost confidence in himself, to tell a story beguiling enough that the reader will forget any confusion, and in his audience, to have brains enough to keep up. Uncompromising it may be, but The Fractal Prince shows the utmost respect for the reader. Rajaniemi of course has no control of the bewildered audience, its patience, or its interest, but his self-confidence is well placed. The book is an elegantly crafted mystery of stunning prose and imagination, one that threatens the stone walls of genre and the glass ceilings of science fiction convention. Yes, he’s telling a caper, but he tells it with style, with math, and, in this case, with The Arabian Nights tangled up in quantum physics. The influence of a merry band of Scottish authors is clear, but Rajaniemi weaves those same threads of mayhem visible in Banks or Stross in a way all his own.
Stepping back for a broader look, one thing stands out more than the craft and intelligence: The Fractal Prince shows possibly the clearest demarcation yet between traditional science fiction and the contemporary scene. Rajaniemi hasn’t upended the genre with this book, but a reader looking back can see just how far science fiction has moved in the last decade or two. The sensation is rather like hiking with one’s head down for a couple of hours, then looking up and realizing that the tree line is some ways back and the scenery is completely different. He is standing on the shoulders of giants to accomplish this of course, giants of the New Wave, the cyberpunk movement, the Singularity crew, and others, but the book comes very close to burning the bridge leading back to traditional SF.
What makes this science fiction experience so different? More than anything, this is a book of the Information Age. I have written before how science has expanded, adding the entirety of the IT field. “Scientists” now include programmers, network admins, project managers, and the like. Readers that once were engineers and physicists are now also computer gamers and app creators. Hard SF can still be about gargantuan engineering projects in deep space, but more often it is about information. Further, Vernor Vinge and his Singularity posse have made post-scarcity a real concept to be wrestled with. When everybody has stuff and things, what matters are intangibles: art, ideas, secrets. There are still stories about pragmatic, Anglo-Saxon engineers solving problems, but they read like relics. Cyberpunk led the way, but its doubtful that William Gibson and crew had any idea that network security would form the basis of whole sagas, that no book written past the mid 1990s could be taken seriously without some extrapolation of the internet.
All of this is clearly visible in the story. We rejoin Jean, our erstwhile protagonist, in the heart of a giant, outer space construct; but it is not a space station or battle fortress, it is a building-sized router. Jean is on a quest, so to speak, and while he isn’t hacking in the traditional sense of the word, he is searching for information, for bits of code. In The Quantum Thief, Jean was stealing time, another intangible that retains value in a post-scarcity world. Rajaniemi is slowly outlining the contours of the major conflict in his universe, a conflict immediately recognizable to readers of post-Vinge SF. The Sobornosts, when not fighting each other, are in a slow burning war with zoku over, in a word, death. Not to the death, but about death. The Sobornosts want to digitize everything, while the zoku prefer to retain some attachment to the wet, squishy parts of us. Everything is utterly post-human of course, but this is a debate we see in Stross, Schroeder, and others. Beneath the jaunty caper, the lyrical prose, and the string theory, we are watching the debates of the information age play themselves out, debates that were well-nigh unimaginable during the Golden Age.
By now I suppose it is painfully obvious that I am not going to corral this into a simple plot summary and recommendation. A reduction into an arbitrary number of stars isn’t going to help anyone anyway, since individual mileage will vary here more than most novels. I would never in a thousand years give this to someone who asked me, “So what’s this science fiction thing you talk about? Where should I start?” I wouldn’t give it to the Baen Books crowd either. The people who are going to love this book are people steeped in science fiction, willing to make the effort to understand something complicated and challenging, and hunting for new paths for the genre to take. The rewards are there for those who go looking.
Rating: Roy Hodgson! Let’s do a little switcheroo here. “Woy” went to Scandinavia from England and gained renown for changing how they play football. He won numerous club titles in Sweden and pushed Finland to their highest world ranking ever. Is there similar glory in Rajaniemi’s future?