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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

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’.

Related stories

Review: A masterful look at five decades of African development

‘Know The Beginning Well’ is an insightful peek into the life of KY Amoako and the fascinating work he has done on the continent

Inside the circle: A review of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

Saidiya Hartmanilluminates the perspectives of young Black women through a vividly cinematic narrative where we are positioned to view the world through their eyes.

More things in heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of

Hemelliggaam or the Attempt To Be Here Now, makes connections between the environment, astronomy and old Afrikaans science fiction novels

The world has not learnt anything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

​This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s ‘Gothic’ novel 'Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus'.

Prosaic – until Hani’s assassins

The stories of children of apartheid activists are similar but Lindiwe Hani’s prose about a meeting with her father’s killers comes into its own.

Fantasy fails to enchant

“A mage’s name is better hidden than a herring in the sea, better guarded than a dragon’s den.” — Ursula K le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea
Advertising

Shongweni stink: EnviroServ bosses back in court

Managers charged over landfill emissions want charges set aside

Jailed journalist a symbol of a disillusioned Zimbabwe

Hopewell Chin’ono backed President Emmerson Mnangagwa when he succeeded Robert Mugabe. Now he’s in jail

Covid-19 a ‘catalyst for closing the pay gap’

Executive directors earn 66 times the national minimum wage and are overwhelmingly white, a report by assurance, advisory and tax services company PwC has found
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday