The Causal Angel

The Causal Angel
Hannu Rajaniemi

Science Fiction has shifted ground in the past few years. Not long ago, a certain group of writers was in the ascendant, preaching a gospel of Singularity. Egan, Stross, Vinge, and others explored the combinations of strong AI and the digitization of the mind, pointing to futures where our meaty bodies are at best an affectation, at worst a hindrance. Their ideas were so persuasive that the Singularity became a kind of stand in for FTL during the somber, Mundane SF era – a topic that had to be addressed in all serious SF either by its mechanism or absence. Before long though, a backlash began to build, with other writers taking up the cross for physical bodies, positing the unbreakable connection between our physical, emotional, and intellectual selves. Of late, I think that the humanist side is beating back the post-humanists. Even Stross himself has backpedaled a bit from his heady Accelerando positions. I wonder if this affects the reception to each new Hannu Rajaniemi book, as he pushes further into a post-humanist future in spite of the efforts of humanists.

The Quantum Thief was the talk of 2011, winning fans and adulation for its mind-bending science, carefully crafted mystery, and the sophisticated and elegant protagonist, Jean le Flambeur. One year later, The Fractal Prince was released, but to more muted acclaim. Not everyone enjoyed a book that was admittedly more obtuse and seemed to lack some of the flair of the first. Now, with The Causal Angel available and Rajaniemi’s trilogy at an end, I haven’t seen much buzz. Even assuming that a certain amount of people never made it through The Quantum Thief, and that a certain percentage of the finishers didn’t enjoy The Fractal Prince enough to continue, I would still think that The Causal Angel is enough to stir up the community. Rajaniemi is one of the boldest new writers and his trilogy is a major statement of intent; I think it deserves to be talked over a bit more by serious genre readers.

Several reasons why people might not go for this stuff occur to me. The books are indeed difficult, and not just for the science. It’s easy to get lost in the q-dots and branes, but also pretty hard to figure out what is going on in the plot. The Causal Angel is easier on the head than the first two, but there is a definite learning curve that can turn off less determined consumers. I’ve also seen comments that Rajaniemi’s books are ornate and convoluted, but ultimately small and dispassionate. This can be true for the first book in the series, less so for the second, and not at all for the newest. The Causal Angel is still stuffed with filigree and decorative language, but there are planets blowing up, space battles, demi-gods in conflict, and deep matters of the heart. The author is (finally?) taking his stories to the big time. Finally, I suspect that Rajaniemi forces many readers out of their comfort zones. This is not your father’s science fiction, but more on that later. In short, the entire Jean le Flambeur trilogy is a bit like a cycle of Scarlatti or Telemann sonatas. Baroque to be sure, complex and emotionally restrained, and requiring a certain effort to enjoy, but worth the investment.

Now that we have dispensed with the criticisms, I want to dig in to why Rajamiemi could become one of the most important Hard SF writers. In a past episode of the Coode Street Podcast (my usual touchstone for the academic side of SF), the hosts debated the greatest challenges to SF right now. The consensus was not the pace of technological change, publishing industry upheaval, the way we seem to live in the future already, or any of the other usual vectors of attack. They concluded that the challenge today is instead quantum physics. Books about rockets or engineering projects are easy compared to authentic looks at all the crazy quantum stuff going on; how many readers understand it anyway? (I certainly don’t.) Writing about real science now is brain meltingly complex and does not necessarily make for good stories. Much easier to rehash epic space battles or transpose the 1990s into the coming centuries.

Enter Hannu Rajaniemi. He hits quantum theory head on, then goes one further by pairing it with the inevitable future of dialed up augmented reality. He deals with uploaded personalities, a Solar System-wide information network, parallel worlds of the physical and virtual, and practical applications of all of the quantum theory stuff that I have no grasp of whatsoever. Physical spaceships move through orbits and Lagrange points, past servers and routers that power the digital worlds overlaying everything, while characters flit in and out of various bodies and frames of reference. Power in the Solar System is split more or less evenly between the Sobornost, which is run by multiple immortal clones of its Founders and is engaged in manually processing randomness out of the universe, and the Zoku, loose affiliations that have taken as a name the Japanese word for “tribe” and treat everything as a game to level up in. The conflict between the two rages between physical and virtual dimensions and at different levels of time compression, over ideological questions of such hot topics as causality.

Yes, this is meaty stuff and certainly not escapist fare. But Rajaniemi has planted his flag on the twin peaks of quantum theory and post-humanism and seems more than willing to give battle there. The latter is still up for debate to be sure, and Rajaniemi’s position is in decline, if my reading of the current state of the genre is correct. The former, however, is a topic that must be dealt with. All that wacky quantum stuff isn’t going anywhere; it can’t be avoided if Hard SF is to be honest with itself. This too, though, sees Rajaniemi in a minority position. The current trend in SF seems to be a return to the earthier SF of the 70s and 80s, as typified by the blockbuster Expanse series or Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books. I read The Causal Angel as a broadside from the author, a gauntlet thrown down as an invitation to glorious single combat in the name of quantum physics. This must become the future of Hard SF, if Hard SF is going to maintain its devotion to The Way Things Really Work.

In many ways, I can trace a line directly from Neuromancer to The Causal Angel. Both offer hallucinogenic views of a confusing technological future. Both borrow the faux-futurism of Japan. Both bid to overthrow the orthodoxy of the genre with cutting edge technology. I have no idea if Jean le Flambeur will leave the same firestorm in his wake that Case did (I suspect not), but I have popcorn on hand in case things get amusing.

As a final nugget, I must express my joy that Rajaniemi’s Bad Guy is drawn from the pages of one of my favorite books on game theory: Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation. The All Defector is an actual participant in Axelrod’s competition who, appropriately enough, never actually wins the game. I may be more excited about this than is healthy, but it’s a brilliant touch. (Everyone should enjoy game theory and everyone should read Axelrod.)

My own enthusiasm for Jean le Flambeur should be apparent by now. I will be following the conversation surrounding his story, looking for greater meaning and some indication of whether it is a turning point in the genre, just a monumental but ultimately overlooked statement, or the beginning of an iconoclastic career. Or who knows – maybe Rajaniemi’s next book will be about a farm boy who slowly learns his true destiny and saves a vaguely European kingdom from the darkest of lords, and my grandiose pronouncements here will prove completely overblown.


5 thoughts on “The Causal Angel

  1. I’ll admit that the premise for these books, even during the hype of the first release, don’t greatly appeal to me. I’m a bigger fan of more basic science fiction, I guess. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

    The great thing about science fiction, in my opinion, is that there are “movements” that happen which bring us interesting science fiction like this, while at the same time there exists the work that has more mass-appeal. That is a bad way to put it, because science fiction in general, in written form, doesn’t appeal to the kind of mass readership that other types of fiction does. I think books like the Expanse series are popular and generate other books like them is that they do offer a level of cross-over appeal for readers who read broadly and are not passionately involved in the science fiction community. In other words, these books are marketable and are a safe(r) bet for publishers, and because they sell well other writers hitch their wagon to the same star.

    But science fiction always manages to have those visionaries who try new things and follow their own interests rather than looking simply to get in on the latest trend. And science fiction as a genre makes room for that, and the community makes room for that, and it is one of the reasons I love this genre and its community.

    Nice to see you mention the Coode Street Podcast. They truly do a wonderful job and I enjoy that podcast more than any of the others I listen to.

    • I too appreciate the big tent. I’m a Hard SF guy at heart, but it’s pretty easy to see why some of it isn’t for everyone. The expanse is also great, and I have my share of guilty pleasures as well. (Hello The Stars at War!) Rajaniemi is even more challenging than Leckie’s Ancillary series, which I know is too much for some people out there. Kinda like avant-garde art/music/dance or something.

      • Leckie’s book was too much for me because I just couldn’t get past the fact that it felt like a gimmick. One of these days I may try it again after all the hype has died down.

  2. I’m one of those people who read the first, but not the rest of the trilogy. I agree there was much less hype about the second and third, and I think that’s why they just slipped off my radar. I also sort of wondered if the latter books weren’t as good as the first, since I wasn’t seeing all that much about them online. Sounds like I should really make an effort to get to reading them!

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