|This year, Hannu Rajaniemi finished up his Jean le Flambeur trilogy with 'The Causal Angel', following 2010's 'The Quantum Thief' and 2012's 'The Fractal Prince' (click here for review), so now seems like a good time for this first book to be reissued in trade paperback.
The trilogy has acquired widespread acclaim, with this opening volume being nominated for both the Locus Award for Best First Novel and the John W Campbell Memorial Award. Neither is at all surprising, because this is very much a science fiction novel for science fiction novelists.
If you're not a science fiction novelist, you might find that it's clever, idea-rich stuff but tough to get into because it tirelessly refuses to explain itself. Of all the many books I've read over the years, this is the one for which I needed a glossary most and there isn't one to be found (unless you venture online and risk the discovery of spoilers.) I keep up with many of these concepts on the tech sites, enough at least to recognize what they are and how they're used, but I was still in a large degree of confusion for the longest time. If you don't have that cursory knowledge, you're going to get very lost very quickly. Just read the plot summary at Wikipedia and watch your brain throw up its hands in disbelief.
Rajaniemi sets up a future solar system in which the majority of ideas floating around today are mature technologies, taken for granted by the societies they affect even though they might seem very strange to us. We spend most of our time in the Oubliette, one of the Moving Cities of Mars, so the ways in which people and technology interact are most obvious there. Let's explore some of them to provide some conception of how deep Rajaniemi's creation goes.
Everything changed on Mars after its civil war, which is both history and legend as this book begins. The Kingdom fell and the people founded their new nation on the basis of privacy, freedom and responsibility. Rajaniemi throws a whole slew of concepts at the Martian wall to build these up from, letting them grow to a major degree.
For a start, Mars is a post-scarcity society, because everyone has a fabber to print anything they want at the atomic level, including food. Instead of money, they make transactions in Time, encrypted through Watches. Instead of dying, people become Quiet when their Time runs out, their gogols or souls transferred into manufactured bodies that do the menial work that nobody would choose to do in a post-scarcity society. After doing their bit for the common good, they're uploaded back into a live body to live another life. So one idea leads to another and then another and so on.
The most obvious concept in play in the Oubliette ties to the privacy angle. Everyone has their own memory, of course, but the city also has an exomemory of its own, into which people can upload their own memories to the cloud because it's often easier to share them than words. To keep things private, these are encrypted and permissions are set so that they're only available under the conditions their owners deem appropriate. Privacy is also a physical concept, so people can effectively hide themselves to the degree or to the people they want. The only exception are the public spaces known as agoras, where privacy is deliberately overridden.
None of that detail is in the book of course. Rajaniemi merely uses cryptic terms like gevulot, phoboi or utility fog and we gradually realize (or not) that he's talking about public key encryption at the quantum level, self-replicating machines and nanotechnology. Some of these are more important to fathom than others. It doesn't matter, for instance, if we don't recognize that the beanstalk station is at the end of a space elevator, but we have to figure out that gogols are souls before we can understand what gogol pirates steal to upload into the hive mind of the Sobornost. Most importantly, not grasping all the ramifications of gevulot causes no end of confusion. Without that, the entire plot is meaningless.
That's just scratching the surface of Mars, from which most of the main characters do not hail. The lead is Jean le Flambeur, a master thief who we initially find stuck in a dilemma prison, forced to undergo an eternal game of the prisoner's dilemma. As the French name suggests, he's based on ArsÃ¨ne Lupin, the famous French fictional detective, and as a protective tool, he hid his real self elsewhere before being incarcerated, so that once rescued he has to track down who he actually is before he can figure out what he's supposed to do.
He's rescued by Mieli, a warrior from the Oort Cloud who has a ship with a personality, a goddess for an employer and a cool fight mode called combat autism that forces her to focus in on the battle at hand. They visit the Oubliette and encounter a set of vigilantes called the Tzaddikim and Isidore Beautrelet, an architecture student with a passion for deduction, who the Gentleman, a tzaddik, has tasked with investigations. He's a curious individual, in a relationship with a zoku, one of a hive mind of post-human warriors descended from MMORPG guilds. Their interactions are fascinating.
Are you confused yet? It's not difficult in this book and it's the biggest reason why it's going to be a tough read for many. However, those who persevere, with or without the benefit of an online glossary as a cheat sheet, may find much of power here.
Rajaniemi is obviously a man of ideas and it's impressive how many of them he threw into this work without running out of room for character, dialogue or action. Everything is phrased as mystery; not only, but especially because of what the two most prominent characters, Jean le Flambeur and Isidore Beautrelet, get up to in the Oubliette. If they follow the little mysteries that drive the plot, there's also a strong mystery wrapped around everything to keep us interested to the end of the book and beyond. Half of my mind wants to leap into the next volume immediately but the other half is exhausted and wants a break.
The prose is fluid and impressive given that English is not the first language of the author, who is Finnish. Many writers who are native English-speakers would give body parts to be able to write this crisply, let alone with this much imagination.
The biggest flaw is certainly how all these glorious ideas are introduced without much explanation. I can understand not doing so within the text, but a glossary would have been a godsend. The biggest boon is that there's so much to explore after the book is done and I don't just mean by continuing the trilogy.
I don't know if Rajaniemi actually invented any of these ideas or whether he just weaved a host of current concepts into a new fictional framework; because I only know about many of them tangentially. But I'm pretty sure that at the very least he's given highly appropriate names to many of these concepts, by trawling languages other than the ones he speaks natively or chose to write in, such as Hebrew and Russian.
For instance, the privacy protocol gevulot is sourced from the Hebrew for 'borders,' just as the masked vigilante Tzaddikim are named for the Hebrew word meaning 'righteous ones.' The Sobornost come from Slavic Christian Orthodoxy, a concept of cooperation at the expense of individualism, appropriate for a hive mind which controls multiple bodies. Their Great Common Task, to absorb all sentient minds, seems to be sourced in the writings of Nikolai Fedorov. I recognized gogols as a reference to the novel 'Dead Souls' by Nikolai Gogol. The concepts of memory are not just based in encryption techniques but are grounded in the memory palaces of classical rhetoric that have found their way into modern neuroscience. I should emphasize that in addition to a glossary, this could have done with a bibliography too.
In short, there are enough ideas here for an entire bookshelf of science fiction novels but Rajaniemi's vision ensures that they play well with each other. This needs dedication to fully appreciate or even to understand, but that dedication does pay off in the end. This is accomplished work. I just believe that I might have to re-read it again immediately to find out just how much I missed the first time through. ~~ Hal C F Astell