The Fractal Prince by Finnish-born author Hannu Rajaniemi (who according to his author biography now lives in Scotland and has a Ph.D. in string theory, whatever that is (I can’t help but imagine a guy in an academic gown and wearing a mortarboard playing Cat’s Cradle, but I suppose that this is probably slightly off the mark)) is the second part of a trilogy; the first part, The Quantum Thief, received a huge amount of attention (almost all of it positive, most critics were positively ecstatic about the novel) when it was published, while the release of the second one for some reason seems to have barely gotten noticed. I really have not the faintest clue why the novel appears to have ended up below anybody’s radar, and it is even more of a mystery to as I think the second volume is even better than the first (and I already liked that one considerably).
The trilogy (for which there does not seem to be an official name – I’ve seen it called either “Quantum Thief” or “Jean le Flambeur” trilogy) constitutes one of the few really successful attempts I have come across to imagine a post-singularity society on a sustained level, i.e. to imagine a world where humans have for the most part uploaded themselves into digital networks and the real and virtual become so closely interlinked that to distinguish between them is practically meaningless. In this world it is also possible for humans (if you even want to still call them that) to make duplicates of themselves at will and to manifest in any body they chose much like these days you select an avatar for a computer game (and one of the big players in this universe actually did evolve from a World of Warcraft clan). From that, you probably get an idea that the society Rajaniemi describes is on the farthest end of the weirdness scale and that it’s generally pretty far out there – although I can promise you that you won’t really be able to appreciate just how far out until you’ve started the novels. Apparently (I have to take the word of reviewers of The Quantum Thief for that as I’m quite clueless in that field) it is all based on cutting edge science, but that part went so far over my head as to make the actual plot of the novels for large parts almost incomprehensible. But actually, that’s not a bug but a feature, in so far as Rajaniemi gleefully follows Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that every science sufficiently developed is going to look like magic, and bends his Science Fiction story into a kind of twisted fairy tale.
And this can be taken literally for The Fractal Prince – that novel’s first reference to Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights occurs already in the prologue and then just keeps piling them on from there, creating a pseudo-Oriental ambience, a Nevernever-Arabia that revels in the manifold colours of its own, self-conscious artificiality, populated with jinni and other strange creatures and filled with the magic of weaving stories. And this is where I think the novel really begins to shine, because it turns out that Rajaniemi is one of the very few Science Fiction authors who care about literary form. Each event or character in each story in Tales of Arabian Nights is a potential source of another story, every moment someone might break out in a new story, and of course that story also might contain a multitude of stories – indeed an infinitude of stories, as of course this process can go on ad libitum, stories within stories within stories, with the reader being drawn deeper and deeper into the potentially infinite pattern. In other words, the Arabian Nights practice a kind of fractal storytelling – or at least that is what Rajaniemi strongly implies here, and it is the narrative structure which his own novel carries over from Scheherazade and her treasury of tales even more than references to characters and events.
Together with the bleeding edge science (which will probably remain incomprehensible to anyone who does not have a Ph.D. in theoretical physics) this makes for some truly mind-boggling (and occasionally headache-inducing) reading, but then making its readers’ heads spin is not necessarily a bad thing to do for a novel. In The Fractal Prince, in any case, it is always fascinating and still was surprisingly (considering that most of the time I had no bloody clue what the hell was going on) fun to read.