Without a doubt, the Jean le Flambeur trilogy by Hannu Rajaniemi is the wildest and most imaginative hard science fiction ride I've encountered over the last decade. As perhaps befits a writer with 'several' advanced degrees in mathematics and physics, who's writing in a foreign language to boot, it's as difficult as it is engaging and it's almost a requirement to re-read each book to fully grok what's going on. However, the three volumes build into something uniquely magical. Their ideas feel almost alive and that's surely the best thing that can be said about any science fiction.
This third and last book in the trilogy is very careful to wrap up a whole bunch of different sub-plots, while moving the action yet again and exploring another of the various wild communities in this solar system.
The first book, 'The Quantum Thief' (click here for review), mostly takes place on Mars, in the moving city of the Oubliette, where citizens spend time rather than money and, after they run out of it, take their turns as Quiet, doing all the jobs that wouldn't get done in a post-scarcity society. Their world is also built on privacy through encryption, and they share memories instead of mere facts.
The second, 'The Fractal Prince' (click here for review), shifts to Sirr, the last city left on Earth after the Collapse, where the self-replicating wildcode nanomachines in the desert threaten the people, who defend with hi-tech that feels like it came out of the Arabian Nights: seals, secret names and hidden words of power. They deal only in the truth, told as stories, which contain a power of their own.
The final book, 'The Causal Angel', shifts again, mostly to Saturn and the realms of the zoku, tribes who are descended from MMORPG guilds and who understand everything in terms of gameplay. We learn a lot about what this means as Mieli, the Oortian warrior who rescued Jean le Flambeur from the dilemma prison in the first book and accompanied him on his adventures in the second, joins a zoku; initially to further her own agenda but eventually to assist le Flambeur once more.
These are thoroughly different concepts and they make for thoroughly different reads, making this more of a triptych than a trilogy, but there's a single story running through the entire trilogy and it's never lost in the mix, even as twists and turns (especially in this book) shake things up completely.
The underlying questions are the one that's going to become more and more important as we move towards the Singularity, namely what it means to be human and what it's going to mean to be a post-human. What are we going to look like when technology isn't just something we use but something we partly are? Not content to merely explore one such possibility, Rajaniemi explores a host of them in this trilogy.
What we see in the Oubliette is highly attractive for a lot of reasons, but that's torn to shreds by the final revelations of that book. Sirr is a wild and unfriendly place, one that requires constant vigilance to avoid infection, but it isn't without its charms, especially to creators. The zokus sound fantastically wild but there's a gradual erosion of the self in them that affects the will. And, a looming presence over each book, there's also the Sobornost, who aim to conquer death by uploading every human being into their hive minds. They also clone themselves digitally ad infinitum, sometimes downloading those copies into host bodies, sometimes merely spinning them off into virtual environments like a nested set of holodecks where it becomes difficult to know what is real and what is not.
I've mentioned in my reviews of the first two books that they were difficult to get into, not just because of the wealth of ideas on show but because those ideas were expressed in terminology that was taken utterly for granted. It might be matter-of-fact to the characters in the stories, but I needed the glossary that Tor didn't add to the book. This third volume is somewhat easier to get into, partly because many of the concepts trickle over from the earlier books, but also because the zoku lifestyle is much more accessible and understandable.
What's most shocking in this book is the sheer scale to which it expands. Those who berate George R. R. Martin for killing off characters ought to really have it in for Rajaniemi because he kills off entire planets and civilisations. It's one thing to imagine the human race expanding onto other planets, it's another entirely to blow them up and take entire civilisations with them. The revelations at the end of each book are daring in their scope but this one trumps the others magnificently.
If 'The Causal Angel' is both the most ambitious and the most accessible volume in the trilogy, it's also perhaps the least engaging because the ideas grow far beyond the characters. I never really felt much of a connection to Jean le Flambeur, who's the central character throughout, because he's too much of a cypher. I was drawn instead to Isidore Beautrelet, the anomalous Oubliette detective in the first book, and Tawaddud, the outsider royal in the second. There's no real replacement for them in the third book, the most engaging character being inherently restricted, especially once we realise what she really is. The next level down for me wasn't even Mieli but Perhonen, the ship she sang into being, who is sadly gone from the story at this point. Without a character with whom I could really connect, this final book became less emotional and more scholarly. I was fascinated but I cared a lot less.
While the second and third books have different enough approaches that they could be read in isolation, I would recommend that readers attempt the trilogy as an entity. The benefits to that are the retention of explanations and the competing approaches to post-humanism. The catch is that three at once often feels like a braindump and I often wondered if I should stop for breath.
With this trilogy done, I'm highly interested in where Hannu Rajaniemi will take his fiction next. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other books by Hannu Rajaniemi click here