Jean le Flambeur is on a mission whilst being hunted – of course, this calls for deft timing and brilliant distraction all while trying to get in a Schrödinger box to borrow a powerful jewel… or not. So begins The Fractal Prince, the second book the Jean le Flambeur series. (Go here for a review of the first book, The Quantum Thief. Also, read them in order.) The Oubliette is replaced with Sirr, a city on Earth ravaged by wildcode. The European steampunk culture is supplanted by an Arabian culture partially under the thumb of the Sobornost. Meanwhile, a small boy version Matjek Chen (a founder) is roving the beach. Mieli, Perhonen and Jean must figure out how much their trust has grown and how closely they keep within the Pellegrini’s wishes.
I love The Fractal Prince for, essentially, the same reasons I loved The Quantum Thief (reviewed here ). There are a few reviews that outline why they liked Quantum Thief but not Fractal Prince; I really don’t get those. They seemed along the same line. It appears that the reader was already worn out with either delayed or slight exposition of terms and concepts used. I’ll address this issue later.
Some things uniquely great about The Fractal Prince are
- The Arabian Nights inspired Tawaddud and her people and the city of Sirr
- The notion of Wild code, Jinn and their role as well as the ones who track it down.
- Schrödinger’s box and the trial set before them.
- The relationships and sacrifices made between a number of characters.
This is going to be a little different review. I read Adam Roberts’ review in The Guardian and commend it for your reading: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/sep/26/fractal-prince-hannu-rajaniemi-review. I won’t lie, after I read his review, I began to reflect seriously on whether I should continue to write reviews since, alas, his is so much better than mine. I then remember that I’ll read books he doesn’t and there is still a place for me in the world of book reviews. Also, despite the brilliant writing, we differ in minor ways. In fact, I liked the writing in his review so much that I bought his read his brilliant book Jack Glass, reviewed here. (Since he really can’t review his own book – hah – there is no chance he’ll outshine my review).
I will not, however, inflict you with a full review of the book (do read Mr. Robert’s). Rather, I’ll address an issue to which Mr. Adams alludes, namely that Hannu Rajaniemi’s writing style is overly difficult due to using new or unfamiliar terms or concepts without any introduction or exposition. Folks frustrated with this aspect ask: Are you just supposed to figure out what the mean by context? You’re kidding, right? So I’ll look at ways in which the charges seem true but draw a very different conclusion. I’ll also show that some the criticism is not accurate.
There are four categories of terms that seem to fall within this criticism:
- A currently used, legitimate term; typically a technical or scientific term. An instance of this is Hawking Radiation
- A concept based either directly off of an in current use, active term – Hawking Engine
- A concept loosely based off of another – a stranglet missile or q-dot guns.
- A brand new term not directly based on anything in the real world – Sobornost.
Now, Mr. Rajaniemi certainly keeps exposition at a minimum and often delays his exposition, but to say he doesn’t introduce terms or ever describe his concepts is simply false. Below are some examples of his exposition. Note: I will take my examples from the first book, The Quantum Thief, since many of the concepts he introduces are in his first book.
- As early as page 18 in his first book, The Quantum Thief, he describes a both Perhonen and q-dot sails. “I was right: Perhonen is an Oortian spidership. It consists of separate modules, tethered together by nanofibres, living quarters spinning around a central axis like an amusement park ride to create a semblance of gravity. The tethers form a network in which the modules can move, like spiders in a web. The q-dot sails – concentric soap-bubble-thin rings made from artificial atoms that spread out several kilometres around the ship and can catch sunlight, Highway meso-particles and lightmill beams equally well – look spectacular”
- In that same volume, on page 38, he describes qupting: “He has yet to get used to the zoku method of qupting. Sending brain-to-brain messages directly through a quantum teleportation channel seems like a dirty, invasive way to communicate compared to Oubliette co-remembering. The latter is much more subtle: embedding messages in the recipient’s exomemory so that information is recalled rather than received.”
- We also see q-dot gun defined: “Her right hand contains a q-dot gun, a linear accelerator firing semi-autonomous coherent payloads.”
- On pg 108 in The Quantum Thief, he describes exomemory and qevulot: “‘This is how it works. The exomemory stores data – all data – that the Oubliette gathers, the environment, senses, thoughts, everything. The gevulot keeps track of who can access what, in real time. It’s not just one public/private key pair, it’s a crazy nested hierarchy, a tree of nodes where each branch can only by unlocked by the root node. You meet someone and agree what you can share, what they can know about you, what you can remember afterwards”
- He also uses his naming as a hint- exo (out of or external) + memory (like exoskeleton). Or Oubliette means dungeon with an opening in the top – this is both a name for the Martian city and a description.
So we have cases where the concept is new but built on real-world physics ala Hawking Drives or their naming reveals the meaning. Finally, we have flat out descriptions or definitions of term. Now, are the references to Physics a bit esoteric? Sure. Is the naming a bit hidden? Yes. Are the explanations awash with previously defined terms so that you have this layered, labyrinthine definition to unravel? Yes. So more of a challenge, but I actually think that’s part of the fun. It’s a bit like trying to figure out the mystery before Arsène Lupin (or Sherlock or Hercule Poirot). So, at least for me, not only does it avoid the problems to the narrative flow of long expositions, it adds to the mystery and the fun. Plus it’s a lovely exercise in humility. If I ever start thinking I’m pretty smart, I’ll just read a little of Hannu Rajaniemi and, voilà, perspective is restored. I’m not so bright after all.
I switched between the Kindle and Audible versions of The Fractal Prince. I listened to the audiobook. Because it’s dense material, I don’t recommend that be your only way of taking in the content, despite it being an excellent recording. Scott Brick does his usual fabulous job narrating. As I’ve noted before, Mr. Brick is in my pantheon of favorite narrators. His pacing, emphasis, and enunciation are nearly flawless, which is a particularly challenging feat since it’s loaded with technical material and new terms. Alas, while he narrated The Quantum Thief, he does not narrate A Causal Angel. More about this switch and the narration here.
There is no doubt that Mr. Rajaniemi’s books contain densely packed concepts and provide a bit more intellectual challenge than the average book or, even SciFi book. From my perspective, the payoff of great storytelling, allusions to historical literature, pop-culture and science swirled together to build amazing worlds is more than worth it.
I cannot commend this book and series enough.