The Fractal Prince. Book Review

THE FRACTAL PRINCE by Hannu Rajaniemi

Gollancz, p/b, £12.99

Reviewed by R A Bardy (@mangozoid)

“Sometimes, it is more important to hear how a story is told than what the story is.”
— Sobornost gogol, Sumanguru.


I’ll be honest, I put off reviewing this for a good few days after finishing it, wondering whether I need to read it once again to try and do it justice. Why the hesitation? Well I haven’t read Hannu’s first book, The Quantum Thief, and so many people have hailed Rannu’s Quantum Thief series as a revelation in SF thinking (if not a full revolution), yet I’m sitting here flummoxed, evidently feeling like I’ve missed something… I do believe that The Fractal Prince would benefit from a second read, and no doubt if I did so it’d probably make a lot more sense, but it’s not something I’m in a position to do anytime soon. I may well chance my arm with the first one, but my head needs a rest after this. Anyway, here goes…

First off, The Fractal Prince is a collection of stories making up a whole (comparisons with 1001 Arabian Nights abound), and there’s a sense that the author is playfully exploring the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox throughout and in his own unique voice. There is an overall arc to the story, but I struggled to follow it until near the end, and while a lot of the writing in The Fractal Prince is truly brilliant, clever, smart, and very artsy – even literary – it’s also extremely tough and oft-times impenetrable.

I know this is going to be a risk but opening the book to a random page, we find…

p78 – The metacortex passes her wish to the jewel… The jewel seizes her volition eagerly. Perhonen’s modified wings, emulating a zoku communication protocol, pass it to the router. Slowly, the wedding bouquet starts to change shape, like origami, unfolded by invisible hands.

Now, if I put this in context and tell you that the “it” that got passed to the router is a very specialised quantum algorithm, and that this all forms part of a story recounting Mieli’s first encounter with a zoku jewel that smells faintly of flowers, well maybe then the “wedding bouquet” bit starts to have meaning, subtext and even elements of symbolism illustrating her ‘joining’ with the jewel, but this zoku jewel was introduced several paragraphs and a page or so ago, and it makes the whole thing really hard work… Maybe I’m reading too much into it, and maybe I’m not reading or interpreting it properly at all, and maybe this, and maybe that… And maybe this kind of thing is pretty cool and clever the first few times, but when you encounter it again and again throughout, it just becomes mentally draining and very hard to keep up. And that, in a nutshell, was my problem with this book: it was bloody hard work and even at the end I felt at a loss.

Don’t get me wrong, there is some genuinely brilliant writing in here, and some of the concepts and characters I did grasp successfully (I think), but this is rock hard quantum science – and apparently scientifically accurate according to people who know about these things – but I’m simply the wrong person to ask about stuff like that, or maybe I’m just simple, full-stop?

I do know my way around a good story though, and I’d like to quote Barry Longyear here (an author I have a lot of time for): “Readers begin stories for many reasons; few of them begin a piece to be either confused or worked to death.” – This sums it up nicely for me, because The Fractal Prince manages to be both very confusing and very hard work, leaving me very much at a loss, and although I could probably squeeze the word “very” in here again and again, I daresay it’ll ultimately prove very annoying. Ditto my feelings re. Hannu’s writing. Ultimately, I am simply not one of the “few”…

There is probably a fantastic book (and series) here, but when you feel like you have to read it at least twice to actually get a handle on things, it makes any decision to buy that much harder. A worthy purchase possibly, but do be prepared to work hard to get to within scratching distance of the multifaceted, multifarious value hidden deep within.