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The Fractal Prince
by Hannu Rajaniemi
Tor, $15.99, 320pp
Published: January 2015

Everything I said in my review of Hannu Rajaniemi's 'The Quantum Thief' (click here for review) goes here too, if perhaps not quite so much. At least he explains some of his concepts here, if not until the two hundred page mark. However, I can confirm that a second reading makes all the difference. I re-read that book in preparation for this one and the third volume in this trilogy and it made much more sense once his ideas had taken root in my brain.

Generally speaking, 'The Fractal Prince' follows Rajaniemi's master thief, Jean le Flambeur, as he and his cohorts, Mieli, an Oortian warrior, and Perhonen, the sentient ship which she sang into being, travel from Mars to Earth on the next phase of their work for Sobornost founder Josephine Pelligrini. I say 'generally speaking' as, while this second volume mirrors its predecessor in exploring a wild variety of post-human ideas, it takes a rather different approach to doing so, one which felt initially odd for such a hard science fiction creation: ancient middle-Eastern fantasies like the Arabian Nights.

Sirr, the last human city on Earth, doesn't feel technological at all. Sure, the diamond city of Sirr in the Sky has fallen to the ground and people live among its wreckage, but what we see are flying carpets, jinni, exorcism, gods, jewels, secret names, hidden words of power. However, each of these old school fantasy icons are explained technologically, which becomes a fascinating exploration of Clarke's Third Law, which states that 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.'

For instance, the desert around Sirr is full of wildcode, which are self-replicating nanomachines that infect people somewhat like a virus infects a computer. Protection can be found in the form of seals, secret names that might sound like 'Open Sesame' but work as firewalls. A jinn isn't a magical demon but a disembodied consciousness running on a swarm of nanobots. They can invade a human mind and be exorcised through appropriate action. Everything's ancient and futuristic at the same time.

Usually Clarke's Third Law comes up when the protagonists of a story visit a less developed world (or when time travellers go backwards), but here the technology predates the society, which merely interprets it in a fantastic way, even as some look at the digital underbelly, which they call the athar, through athar glasses. I loved this approach and I felt much more immersed into life in Sirr than I did in the Oubliette of Mars in the first book, perhaps because the royal outcast Tawaddud is such an engaging and delightful character and her stories bring the city of Sirr to life.

Another tie to the Arabian Nights is the use of stories, which are thrown at us every which way but loose. We're told stories that function like matryoshka dolls, stories that transform into Moebius strips, stories that contain beings which can be freed from them. It makes sense as, after all, everything in these post-human worlds is fundamentally information, including many of the characters we meet and the places in which we meet them. Entire scenes unfold in virs, virtual machines running one or more levels beneath reality, and involve gogols, or copies of minds translated into software. Naturally, this sort of thing aids the grounding of these novels as heist stories.

This approach to stories also reminded me of the theories Alan Moore propounds which tie magic specifically to writing, with the writer the nearest thing to a shaman in modern society. His concept of the idea space has many similarities to Sirr and the other parts of the solar system that Rajaniemi has built.

While 'The Quantum Thief' spent most of its time on Mars, this one is a little more varied in its outreach. Stories we're told take us to the Oort Cloud, the clouds of Venus and the wildcode desert of Earth. Action involves a Sobornost guberniya, which is a moon-sized computer that houses millions of software copies of a particular Sobornost founder, and a zoku router, which is just like a network router but whose parts are living beings.

The latter two locations highlight where this trilogy is going: a return to the war between the Sobornost, whose goal is to end death by uploading all of humanity into software, and the zokus, quantum entangled hive minds which evolved from MMORPG guilds. They fought once before in the Protocol War, which the Sobornost won, but it's coming down to another battle, all to do with a vast space-time event known as the Spike and the Kaminari jewel, a zoku creation made out of warped spacetime.

Oddly, for a book which seems to frame the trilogy as this war to come, what happens within it seems rather abstracted from that bigger picture. However, there's so much going on in this wild collage of stories that it's easy to lose focus on what we're really supposed to be looking at and what's merely distraction. If 'The Fractal Prince' is a magic trick, you'll have forgotten your card by the time you're asked to name it.

I think that I enjoyed 'The Fractal Prince' more than I did 'The Quantum Thief', but if that one is anything to go by, I'll find it less cryptic on a second time through. What's most different is that after finishing the first book, I felt like I needed a break to come to terms with what I'd read, not to mention look up a glossary online, but after finishing the second, I want to launch straight into the third. ~~ Hal C F Astell

Click here for a review of the third book, The Causal Angel)

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