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Quantum tale, noir-laden fable

THE FRACTAL PRINCE by Hannu ­Ranjaniemi (Gollancz)

OSAMA by Lavie Tidhar (Solaris)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Atoms, rocket travel and computers have ceded genre territory to string theory, jumping between alterities and ship-minds. But in Hannu Ranjaniemi’s cutting-edge worlds, humans still hanker after eternal life.

In the second part of Ranjaniemi’s planned trilogy (which began with the 2010 Quantum Thief), we meet again the con man Jean le Flambeur. Despite existing in multiple copies, he’s somewhat diminished now: most of his memories were lost on Mars. What he can remember makes him queasy with self-doubt and his employer has probably manipulated even that. The conundrum of how far our identity is made by our memories twists like a titanium spring through the book.

There is dissent among the Founders of the Sobornost, the godlike rulers of the multiverse. One of their number has commissioned Le Flambeur to steal the Kaminari jewel, the key to halting entropy and death. The jewel is held by potentate Matjek Chen, a client of the same Founder. But Chen has lost the memories necessary to power up the jewel. They reside in his childhood upload, occupying a virtual-reality bookshop that serves as a memory theatre. The Founders are squabbling in part because they are no longer individuals; they have become clans of copy-minds sharing some — but crucially not all — of  the same memories.

Meanwhile, the physical upload of child Chen is buried under a Middle Eastern desert, in a perilous region of Earth filled with rogue software and predatory minds hunting human bodies (jinns). Ranjaniemi paints that part of his landscape through a literary conceit borrowed from the 1001 Arabian Nights: a young woman buying her life by telling tales — some prosaic, some fantastical; all embodying human memories vital to the quest.

Many reviewers have grumbled about the density of both scientific terminology and baroque neologism in this book. Though it can have its own jagged poetry, the language does make The Fractal Prince a demanding read: “The warmind nods and thinks his Code at the firmament. The demiurge gogols flinch at its intensity, disrupting the vir …”

But, in the end, fretting about that is more of a distraction than the words themselves, which mostly acquire meaning through context as the narrative unfolds. Ride with it to follow a story that is richly romantic: more fairy tale than hard SF, suffused with an almost Proustian melancholy of love and loss.

It’s telling that it’s Ranjaniemi’s vocabulary that has stalled some readers, rather than the imaginative leap demanded by simultaneous multiple alternate existences. That notion — one of the vistas opened by string theory — is now pervasive throughout science fiction and fantasy.

Vigilante hero
Some writers, like Ranjaniemi, have joyfully embraced the literary opportunities offered by leaping from now to then and there to here and elsewhere. Others, such as the World Fantasy Award winner, South African Lavie Tidhar, have focused more tightly on the intriguing question of what would happen if the worlds leaked.

In the world of Osama, the geography is one we know but the history has been very different. Antoine de Saint-Exupery rather than Charles de Gaulle became post-war president of France. The United States’s  imperial adventures in Southeast Asia seem not to have happened. Research technology is stuck with landlines and libraries. Osama bin Laden is the vigilante hero of a series of pulp novellas.

Tidhar’s protagonist, Joe, is a classic noir-novel detective: chain-smoking, short of clients, with an empty filing cabinet containing only a bottle of whisky. He is hired by an enigmatic (and, of course, alluring) woman to track down Mike Longshott, the improbably named author of the Osama books.

From that point on, the surface of the narrative will be familiar to fans of Chandler and Hammett. Joe travels, gathers enigmatic clues and interacts with a gallery of grotesques who may or may not be helping his search. He is menaced by a man in black shoes, shot at, beaten up and warned off the case, and eventually kidnapped and interrogated by some quiet Americans.

That’s the surface. Tidhar’s central concern is with the nature of the “real” and in particular with the way the so-called War on Terror has become a fiction-like meme in the popular imagination.

“A noir detective novel is the only real way we can make sense of this narrative,” he told one interviewer. “It seems to me to come from some alternate history pulp novel in so much of its iconography and the way it is told.”

Eventually, the narrative arc fragments. Like a movie from Bunuel or a novel by Borges, recurring images overlay and mist the action: a dull rain; a mirror; deliberate facsimiles of real objects. In a cinema, Joe sees “figures going through an alien ritual while he [is] frozen on the wrong side of the screen”.

Rich in references to the canon of speculative fiction, and to rather older surrealist and symbolist traditions, Osama is a highly literary novel, something effectively masked by how it’s told: in the deceptively straightforward voice of a Mike Hammer.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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