The Causal Angel – Hannu Rajaniemi
I have never before read a book in which both Earth and Mars were completely destroyed within the first forty pages. Jupiter was polished off in the last volume, too. This is the third and final novel in his Quantum Thief series and Rajaniemi continues not to play by the rules. He crafts a world (a solar system, in fact) completely unlike the one in which we live, and his writing has the strength to carry it off.
Rajaniemi’s novels are famously packed full of an invented vocabulary which is never openly explained to the reader. Many readers have hence complained about the difficulty of following events, and at times this is problematic. This sacrifice is more than worthwhile, however. The complete immersion of the characters, who never pause to explain a term, in this vocabulary means that Rajaniemi’s novels are immersive in a way which few science fiction authors manage to match. It helps that the vocabulary, when investigated, often contains clever references (Gogol, Notchcube) or at least comes from other languages (Perhonen, guberniya, sobornost), meaning that, unlike the bland acronyms or obviously made up terminology of many science fiction writers, Rajaniemi’s vocabulary has true depth and is worth familiarising oneself with.
This novel explores in great depth the zoku, far future gaming clans (who have evaded destruction by living on Saturn). There are frequent references to modern gaming culture, with the popular, COD style ‘Gun Club’ faction (complete with a comprehensive armoury) and the more pretentious ‘Narrativists’. There is a possible reference to a common MMORPG convention in the description of how ‘dead’ zoku members have to return to the site of their deaths in ghost form in order to be resurrected. As in Iain M Banks’ Player of Games, the zoku are a pleasingly thought-provoking exploration of how people will find meaning in life in a superabundant far future. Games taking on an all-consuming significance in people’s lives is a trend which we are perhaps, for better or worse, seeing the first signs of in the modern world. The zoku are certainly cool enough to convince me, at least, that it is for to better. But towards the end of the novel there is a hint that, in some ways, it may be for the worse, in the zoku’s inability to treat a possibly apocalyptic threat as anything more serious than “a final level boss.”
“Destruction, after all, is a form of creation.” If the zoku represent the lack of seriousness which might accompany superabundance, the sobornost are the other side of the coin. These are seven powerful individuals who attained godlike powers through making endless copies of themselves. Whilst the zoku show humanity content to sink into relative unobtrusiveness in its old age, the sobornost demonstrate the extreme changes which highly advanced humans might wreak upon the universe. Rajaniemi paints a universe changed beyond recognition by their technological development. The point is especially clear in this final book, with many of the planets of the solar system destroyed but replaced by the planet sized guberniyas of the sobornost Founders. The sacrifices to be made if humans are to become gods is clear. The solar system is literally shaped in man’s image, with the faces of the Founders emblazoned in unimaginable scale on the surfaces of their creations. The sobornost therefore provide a sharp contrast with the zoku. Whilst the zoku have developed into Banks’ Culture, the sobornost have become Star Trek’s Borg.
It is always heartening to see science fiction go beyond its reputation as lightweight escapism. This novel and its prequels are prime examples of this, exploring the far future of humanity in a complex and nuanced way and using language in a new, inventive and layered fashion. I could have talked more about the characters, who are detailed, consistent and engaging. Mieli stands out in particular. Overall, this novel provided an excellent ending to an excellent series.