05 February 2020
TL;DR - Arabian nights + Islamic Penrose tiling geometries + fractal decompression + Hofstadter Strange Loops + True Names + stories as biological vectors + Annihilation-level Lovecraftian anatomical weirdness + No Cloning Theorem + Zen Buddhist Suiboku-ga
Cross-posted from my Goodreads reviews found here.
In The Fractal Prince Hannu Rajaniemi builds upon the foundations set in the first book of this series, The Quantum Thief. We follow our trio composed of our one-and-only (kinda) thief, Jean le Flambeur, his companion Mieli who is an angel-like warrior raised on a comet from the Oortian clouds, and her sentient ship Perhonen whom she sang to existence. They are headed to Earth to track down youthful innocence, which takes the form of one of the original copies of a mind thought to have eventually turned into the god-like being which now rules most of this universe. Weighty-stuff right?
Now before you think this book just follows in the footsteps of its former sibling, it most definitely does not! Yeah, it might be just as concept-dense (yum!), but it’s stylistically and narratively a very different kind of story…
For instance, this novel is written very much in the vein of fantasy-inspired science fiction (somewhat Slipstream in sub-genre). The setting takes place in an Aladdin / Arabian Nights -like world, where Islamic architecture filled with artfully-placed geometric mosaic patterns are tiled across every surface mixed with generous amounts of symbolic calligraphy-like words and phrases scrawled along every nook-and-cranny and tattooed across bodies as a norm. And these aren’t just mere art! These linguistic-geometric patterns make up the very way of life for the inhabitants of this world, both human and jinn, as they act similar to the concept of True Names (again fantasy-inspired), where the name of a thing or being can evoke its true nature or even call into existence properties of that object/being. “The Names are the names of the Aun, and by calling them you control the world, access the functionality built into the foglets in Earth’s atmosphere, rock, and water by the ancients”.
Rajaniemi artfully weaves this linguistic-geometric Naming concept in with the ecological system itself, where instead of magic we have our physical natural world overlaid with grids of digital information flow. And because Rajaniemi’s universe already has reached the nanomachine-level of technological advancement, the causal interactions between each of these layers are very much strengthened. In fact, similar to the Thalience concept of Karl Schroeder’s books, we have Mother Nature herself and the native biosphere merging with nanotech and self-modifying code. Imagine the desert sands blowing with nanomachine grains of physical Matrix-like digital rain, coming alive in gusts of sentience to enact a will of its own self (or selves!).
To potentiate that trippy, almost digital-fractal-psychedelic imagery, let’s now inject some Lovecraftian horror (similar to the Weird Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation) with evolution herself going wack and various organisms (and mathematical patterns!) are combining horizontal-gene-transfer-style on steroids. Imagine a girl whose breasts are spider-like spinnerets producing webs of silk, or human bodies which mutate into medusoid sea-anemone like appendages, or skin that starts turning into geometric jewel-encrusted Penrose tiling patterns. And what’s even crazier is that all of this could either be caused by exposure to the desert nanotech sands (aka - Wild Code) OR even brought about by the mere hearing or reading of a story!!! (‘Rona’s got nothing on Wild Code!) It turns out that listening or reading something evokes this pattern of neural firing which begins a process of fractal decompression, creating a self-referential loop forcing the brain to iterate again and again, bootstrapping a new mind inside the other into existence, eventually reprogramming one’s brain and reworking and reshaping one’s biology into monstrously beautiful hybrids like some memetic virus taken literally.
In fact, stories in this book can literally (best word ever) act as conduits for information-software beings (jinn) to download their consciousness into you and take over your body to feel the pleasures of flesh again (with body-thievery being so rampant in this world we get exorcist and demon possession-vibes galore). Now with all these fantasy-elements mentioned I thought that I wouldn’t like it as much since many fantasy books feature magic used willy-nilly as a deus ex machina, but fortunately this book doesn’t hide anything with its magical system. Instead, Rajaniemi builds upon it in a systematic and consistent fashion (thus passing Sanderson’s laws-of-magic rigor test that my personality naturally demands).
Furthermore, it is through this very device that Rajaniemi makes up for what I found lacking in his first book…strong character building and emotional resonance. Because of the potential danger brought about by a culture composed of human minds entwining with other minds, we as readers are made to question the nature of individual free will and whether or not motivations, thoughts, or even feelings are that of our own or due to another stronger will subsuming our own. And I think it is because of some these very philosophical questions surrounding Free-Will, how thoughts/feelings jump from person-to-person or story-to-person, and what it means for a Consciousness to miss the warmth and pleasure that comes with being embodied into flesh, that easily allows the reader tie what our characters are feeling to physical things that we intuitively understand and that easily emotionally resonate. Now is this literary device ironically meta or not? 😅 (I think there’s also something to be said about the fact that the etymological root of ‘emotion’ stems from ‘movere’ or to move).
Anyways, on the plot end of things, this book really delivers as well, and like before it all stems back to darn philosophy! Following along the arguments posed in this book regarding the differences between a construct composed solely of information versus that made up of flesh and matter, the story hinges upon our antagonist chen (emphasize the lowercase ‘c’ here!) and how his childhood experiences have led him to his life’s goal which we call The Great Common Task (these parts so beautifully evoke feelings of weltschmerz, lacrimae rerum, & mono no aware). Basically, The Great Common task demands that we pursue the ability to rewrite the laws of physics (more specifically I think the No Cloning Theorem of Quantum Mechanics) such that anybody that has ever existed in the past will come back to live once again, ultimately eliminating Death and achieving immortality proper (a seemingly noble and beautiful goal). According to chens’ motives (see what I did there 😉), “The Great Common Task requires the taming of physics, the eradication of quantum filth, taking the dice from God’s hand, the creation of a new Universe with new rules, inside guberniyas, where all those who died can live again turning away from the laws written down by a mad god.”
And our antagonist is not alone in wanting this! His dream has many followers. His partner gods who are seemingly aligned in this mission even have followers who make this pilgrimage to Venus where they get collapsed into a singularity, break Bekenstein limits, and are uploaded to eventually become mere thoughts of this greater god. I actually found this part of the story somewhat beautiful. And this feeling wasn’t orphaned to just this moment. The feel-good sigh that comes with aesthetic-appreciation was also present in the final battle when a kaleidoscope of angels came crashing down from the heavens singing as a choir(!), while also being present in more subtle shades such as when our antagonists’ (😉) own virtual private world reminiscent of Zen Buddhist-like minimalism evokes a calm serenity that washes over you. I really love the imagery Rajaniemi and chen paints here with his realms of abstract language and maths expressed as the Japanese ink wash painting technique known as sumi-e or suiboku-ga (I’m always a sucker for culture-steals like these).
Idea-wise, if you haven’t already picked this up, this book obviously delivers on that front. My main goal in reading science-fiction usually centers around sifting and mining for novel ideas, and although I’ve already been exposed to many if not all of these ideas before, that’s mainly because it is these very concepts which make up the core of my main interests. The nature of Consciousness, the interaction between language and our internal narratives, and taking the Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle and Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe Hypothesis seriously (ie - radical platonism) is totally like my jam. Throw in the fact that at the end of the book Rajaniemi mentions he was influenced both by two people whose work I really love, philosopher Andy Clark and cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, and this automatically becomes a heroin-imprinted love affair! Also, extrapolated volition…now where have I heard that used coherently before 😇
Overall, this book is captivating in its plot twists, evocative in its imagery, and aesthetically well-done in expressing its concepts. I really like the story-book ending as well 😉 (again, meta!) Thank you Hannu Rajaniemi for once again delivering an excellent story ❤️