2012’s The Fractal Prince is the second volume in Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean le Flambeur post-human science fiction series.
Having enjoyed at best mixed results in his previous caper, Jean and companion Meili have a treasure held in a box they cannot open, a box that will destroy its contents in short order. Many people might find a hiding place where they could focus on cracking the enigma. Fate has other ideas for the legendary thief and his AI-possessed companion.
While biological intelligences still exist, the dominant beings are primarily software. Identity in this context can be blurred: people are not who they say they are, they may contain intrusive elements of other beings (Meili’s situation), and fragments of beings can be scattered across the Solar System. It is this last that concerns Jean: he is looking for an old memory record of a man named Chen, whose cognitive descendant is now a Sobornost, the nigh-gods of the Solar System.
Despite the best efforts of hunters to bring Jean to heel, he and Meili manage to reach Earth. Earth is to a first approximation uninhabitable, being overrun by wildcode dangerous even to any Sobornost. The city of Sirr has an arrangement with the wildcode, one that allows its inhabitants to survive and provides the citizens with a treasure rare in the Solar System: protection from the Sobornost, who may only safely venture onto Earth under unusual circumstances.
Sirr has problems of its own: Councilwoman Alile is dead, murdered. Disgraced Tawaddud is given the task of guiding Sobornost agent Sumangaru during the seven days of protection from wildcode he has been granted. Sumangaru claims that Alile’s killer is a Sobornost foe. This may or may not be true. It becomes clear that someone powerful does not want the case solved.
A sensible thief might opt for a low profile and short visit. Jean opts to entangle himself with the local power struggle, trusting to misdirection for protection. It’s a bold strategy. Bold is so often a synonym for foolish….
I strongly approve of novels with titles that are easily searchable. Searchable titles are good for book sales, as it is easier to purchase books if one can find them. This is especially true of ebooks. This book gets high ratings for searchability because it was the first hit when I searched. This despite the fact that I had misremembered the title as Quantum Prince. A title I can find even when I remember it incorrectly deserves high praise.
This is where I should admit that while I am not in principle opposed to post-human settings, I have an aversion to this particular flavour of post-human setting, where the gods are software, identity is blurred at best and nonsensical at worst, and there are many boots stamping on human faces forever. Aside from the AIs being more articulate, there’s not a lot of difference between this setting and post-apocalyptic settings like The Last of Us: in both, something inhuman uses humans in pursuit of alien whims. Grim.
Another complaint: this may be a caper novel but it is also an SFF novel from an era when multivolume serials were acceptable. Accordingly, don’t pick this volume up unless you’ve read The Quantum Thief. It would also be prudent to plan on reading the third volume, The Causal Angel.
Although there are far more events and more characters than I can cram into my word count limit, the plot’s essentials are straight-forward. Rajaniemi conceals this with stylistic tricks: jumping back and forth through the time line, introducing back story as folk tale, and hiding unexpected characters in plain sight. These epicycles may be off-putting to some readers. But a plus for the book is that while their circumstances may be deplorable, the characters themselves are often sympathetic. Readers will care whether or not the players find, if not happy endings, then perhaps least-bad fates.
The Fractal Prince is very much not my thing. But it is skillfully done and I can see why other readers love Rajaniemi’s work.