Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Book Review | The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi

Alone on a timeless beach, Josephine Pellegrini find herself disappointed by the end of the world.

The sun is almost down, an orange flare just beyond the edge of the calm expanse of the sea. The globe of Earth hangs in the sky. There are dark tendrils chasing each other in the white and blue, spreading like spilled ink. Matjek Chen's Dragons, turning matter and energy and information into themselves. Soon they will burrow into the crust of the dying world.

And when the world has died? Josephine will turn her attention to the tools that have failed her. To the traitorous Mieli and to the thief who betrayer her: Jean le Flambeur.

With his infectious love of storytelling in all its forms, his rich characterisation and his unrivalled grasp of thrillingly bizarre cutting-edge science, Hannu Rajaniemi has swiftly set a new benchmark for SF in the 21st century. He has told the story of the many lives, and minds, of the gentleman rogue Jean le Flambeur.

Influenced as much by the fin de siecle novels of Maurice le Blanc as he is by the greats of SF, Rajaniemi has woven intricate, warm capers through dazzling science, extraordinary visions of a wild future, and deep conjectures on the nature of reality and story. And now it's time to learn the final fates of Jean, Mieli and all mankind...


The finale of the stellar science fiction saga that The Quantum Thief kicked off begins days after the devastating denouement of The Fractal Prince, with Jean le Flambeur, the trilogy's fin de siecle frontman, finally free, if crestfallen after the abject failure of his latest caper. His partner in crime, meanwhile, finds herself in terrible peril, in part because of the last act of her sentient spidership Perhonen:
When a Sobornost hunter attacked us, the ship tried to save Mieli by shooting her into space. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. [...] The problem is that Mieli served the Sobornost for two decades and carries a Founder gogol in her head. There are too many forces in the system that was access to that kind of information, especially now. For example, the Great Game Zoku, the zoku intelligence arm. They might be nice about it, but when they find her, they are going to peel her mind open like an orange. The pellegrinis, the vasilevs, the hsien-kus or the chens will be less polite. Let alone the mercenary company she infiltrated and betrayed on Earth. (pp.10-11)

The Causal Angel is as daunting a novel as this early excerpt suggests, requiring from its readers such deliberate committment that those who come to their fiction for fun—though there is some—would be best to leave this baby be. Accessible it ain't, I'm afraid. What it is is brilliant: far more focused than the books before it, and as fulfilling, finally, as it is difficult.

Hannu Rajaniemi doesn't waste any time explaining the array of concepts and creations featured in his breakthrough series previously. Instead, it's sink or swim as the story starts at speed, with Jean coming to a conclusion sure to prove confusing for anyone familiar with his devil-may-care character:
I could be anyone. I could go to Saturn or beyond, find someone to take care of Matjek, and then be Jean le Flambeur again. 
Perhonen once asked me what I was going to do when our mission was over. When I think about it now, it is like peeking over a sheer cliff. It makes my gut wrench with fear. So little of me came out of the Prison intact. What do I have left, except promises? (pp.16-17)
In particular his promise to Perhonen: to make sure Mieli is safe from the many threats she faces—a fair few of whom wish her ill because of her association with him. Without her at his side, Jean understands at last that he is "a lonely man, a divided man [...] a man wrapped inside another creature," (p.154) indeed. To wit, the thief, in a moment of unforeseen decency, sets about begging, borrowing but by and large stealing all he'll need to make one final heist happen.

And what does he hope to hijack? Nothing less than the Realm where the Zoku have hidden Mieli, in her misery. But it isn't so simple:
I thought the job would be straightforward. Get to Mieli before they break her, use the Leblanc's tools to break into whatever Realm they have her in, and steal her. Simple, what I do best. Instead, I now have the Great Game after me—and Mieli is already one of them. (p.122)
Rajaniemi's renewed focus on the Zoku allows The Causal Angel to retain the piquant playfulness of its predecessors, but with The End of the entire imminent, and the stakes so sky-high—all mankind hangs in the balance in the last act, in fact—the author is wise, as well, to invest Jean's quest with real seriousness.

His habitual hijinx are neither gone nor forgotten—the scene where Jean steals the Leblanc back is especially memorable—but he's not just nicking things for the sake of it, at this stage. He's stealing to save Mieli, as he sees it, and in a very real sense to remember himself. Insights into who he was before he became the thief featured in this series do a great deal to add humanity to his larger than life character. Jean is suddenly vulnerable—and relatable, relatedly, in a way he hasn't been since we saw him sitting in a cell at the very beginning of the trilogy.

This satisfying circularity is further reinforced by the book's bad guy: the All-Defector, to whom we were introduced in the opening chapters of The Quantum Thief, because "causality. It's a lens through which we see things. An ordering of events. In a quantum spacetime, it is not unique. It's just one story among many." (p.40) Several other events are also so ordered, including the arc of Mieli's feelings for the titular figure and Jean's sometime lover Josephine Pellegrini's insatiable search for perfection.

In this way, The Causal Angel has clarity where it counts: in terms of narrative and character, the very fundamentals of fiction. That said, this isn't easy reading. Moments that are markedly more abstract come thick and fast; readers are practically guaranteed to be flustered with frustrating frequency... but also, belatedly, amazed.

At the last, there's no other option than to let the weird and the wonderful wash over one: a Zoku trueform fug of strangelets and sparkling diamonds, beautiful to look at, but still more striking from the inside. Hannu Rajaniemi is without question one of the smartest authors working in science fiction as we speak, and I can't wait to see what he does next.


The Causal Angel
by Hannu Rajaniemi

UK Publication: July 2014, Gollancz
US Publication: July 2014, Tor

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