You don’t have to have a doctorate in mathematical physics to keep pace with The Fractal Prince, the ebook of which is out today, though I warrant it wouldn’t hurt. As per its predecessor, Hannu Rajaniemi’s new novel might be the most intellectually impenetrable book you read all year - but read it you must if you’ve an interest in literary science fiction, because beneath its murky surface there sparkles such beauty that averting your eyes would be tantamount to travesty.
Having been imprisoned in a meta-cell for an untold term, the quantum thief Jean le Flambeur is finally free. Or is he? It’s tough to tell, and in any event, Jean has one last job to orchestrate before his life is his own again: specifically a mission for Mieli and the technological goddess who sees and hears all evil from behind her Oortian eyes.
Jean and Mieli’s journey on the Perhonen takes our unlikely allies from Mars, where the climax of The Quantum Thief occurred, to an orbital Zoku router a short hop off “the Highway - a constantly flowing river of spaceships and thoughtwisps, a starry brushstroke in the dark. A branch of the gravitational artery through the Solar System.” Inevitably, their interstellar road trip terminates on Earth, where Tawaddud Gomelez—the former lover of a genocidal jinn with a heart of magma, and latterly a political pawn in spirited competition with her sister Dunyzad—has become caught up in a posthuman revolution.
It’s easy enough to encapsulate after the fact, but in the moment, The Fractal Prince’s plot is at times nefariously multifarious. That said, what we have here becomes clear almost immediately: namely, a great puzzle box of a book, very much in the mode of Rajaniemi’s critical darling of a debut... and I fear it isn’t any easier to unpack this one’s mysteries.
In the first, an overabundance of mythological and technical terminology poses a problem. There are ghuls and gogols and guberniyas; virs and beemees; also quarins and whatever an athar is; meanwhile, the muhtasib and the mutalibun roam the wildcode wastes. Needless to say, all this jargon is jarring—at least initially—and the complex concepts behind the weird words also mystify for the larger part.
Absent the detailed descriptions one correctly or incorrectly expects when such involved ideas are introduced, context is key in assuming an understanding of Rajaniemi’s new novel, and even then, deciphering The Fractal Prince takes a level of dedication most authors would not dare demand. It’s hard to get a handle on anything beyond the basic premise, and if by the last act some of our suppositions have been borne out, many more have not. In the interim, the thief’s half of the whole simply happens. We get the impression that the stakes are great, but they are so abstracted it can be hard to get a handle on what Jean wants, or why.
Stark in its contrast to this overwhelming emotional coldness, the new narrative thread Rajaniemi introduces in The Fractal Prince is infinitely easier to invest in. Readers will warm to Tawaddud and the nest of stories she tends from the first, in fact. “There are roads and cities and wonders, herds of von Neumann machines, dark seas of the dead, sand that listens to you and makes your dreams comes true.” There is wonder here, and warmth. A markedly more transparent narrative, alongside an abundance of colourful characters with less existential concerns than those of the thief:
“There was something very strange about it: the bare-bones abstraction, like [a story] written by a child. Usually, the forbidden stories of the body thieves are addictive, full of danger and cliffhangers and characters that insert themselves into your head and become you. But this is raw, full of a simple desire, a dreamlike need to find something.”
The Fractal Prince only comes together conclusively when Tawaddud’s tale becomes one with Jean’s. Ingeniously, by the time you realise that this is happening, it has happened, “like origami, unfolded by invisible hands.” Thus the way is paved for a powerful finale that hearkens back to the entire’s byzantine beginnings.
On the whole, The Fractal Price is a daunting novel despite its slight stature, just short of Greg Egan’s Orthogonal series in terms of scientific stricture, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 has an edge of accessibility over it. Its narrative, too, is testing - but as the Sobornost gogol Sumanguru (or someone wearing his face) says, “sometimes, it is more important to hear how a story is told than what the story is.”
These words prove particularly prescient regarding this brief sequel to The Quantum Thief, because on the sentence level at least—and on the other end of the spectrum, structurally speaking—The Fractal Prince is fantastically crafted, studiously stimulating, and aesthetically oh-so-satisfying science fiction. Hannu Rajaniemi may not be a man to hold hands, but surely exploration is more interesting, ultimately, than instruction. So sure, you’ll burn a few brain cells reading his new book, but this is a fair price to pay for such calculated artistry.