Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Jean le Flambeur series

Hannu Rajaniemi's Jean le Flambeur (lit: John the Big Spender or the Heavy Gambler) follows the adventures of the titular Jean, a headline-making thief of great notoriety, as he breaks out of prison, steals an assortment of things, develops friendships, double- and triple- and n-tuple-crosses everyone and their parents, and eventually (perhaps) saves all of civilization from destruction (indirectly). It's a neat trilogy, with some cool ideas, but I think it stretches on a bit too long; it would make a tight duology.

The Quantum Thief follows Jean as he escapes a very cool-sounding prison where the iterated prisoner's dilemma combines with adaptive neural learning to "teach" the prisoners to be cooperative. This is a neat idea with actual math behind it (although of course there are many equilibria aside from 100% cooperation). Then he goes to a walking robo-city on Mars where all perceptions of experiences are digitally mediated and managed by a permissions/privacy system, so for example a stranger can deny you the passive observation of the stranger's visual appearance by limiting your permissions. This is a really cool idea, short-circuited by the fact that analog cameras are not subject to the permissions system and completely subvert it. (It seems like vision should, too, except that everyone's brains are being actively edited by a vast computer system which forces perception to align with permissions.)

Lots of other cool ideas abound, but of course the privacy ones piqued my interest. The book was a merry caper, although many mysteries were revealed to be explained by mechanisms that the reader never learned about (until they were narratively necessary to explain the reveal!). This is an irksome authorial practice, but the book is so flamboyantly imagined, with futuristic details and descriptive glitter everywhere, that it gets a pass. For example, on page 193:
His workshop is a cross between a quantum physics laboratory and a horologist's workspace, full of sleek humming boxes with holodisplays hovering around them and neatly sorted piles of tiny gears and tools on wooden work surfaces.
Certain paragraphs or sentences blazed out of the book, gems of excellence and clarity. (Page 49's "Interlude: THE KING" has an outstanding opening paragraph.)

Overall I recommend the book. After finishing the last page, I realized that most of the mysteries hadn't been answered or even completely framed; there was a giant trail of breadcrumbs leading somewhere. Thus we proceed to the second novel!

The Fractal Prince follows Jean as he does some more high-octane thievery and conniving. The scene is transported to a post-uplift/apocalypse Earth, and the previous privacy/permissions technology is abandoned in favor of a system of magic, storytelling, and djinn. This is cool, although in the end it is explained away as basically a different skin over the same technology as before, so that Jean's story isn't actually jumping universes when it planet-hops. This is both enervating (an entirely new magic/technology system to explore!) and irritating (all familiarity with technology from book 1 is useless, esp. for trying to solve the caper-mysteries before the reveal).

The coolest part is that book 2 has many threads, and these threads recurse at several points. The djinn-flavor comes with a 1001-Arabian-Nights spin: stories are powerful, and narrative truth compels. This means that the way the novel unfolds influences how the characters' abilities unfold, since their puissance is directly tied to their ability to recount (in an interesting narrative) how their story has developed so far. This is a nice touch. I'd like to see more done with this. Perhaps another book following (or prequelling) the secondary characters here?

Book 2 doesn't really resolve any of the mysteries developed in book 1. It throws a couple new ones on the pile, and strongly entices you to the promise of book three of three:

The Causal Angel. This book suffered heavily from... existing. And from a lenient editor permitting it to develop John-C-Wright-Eschaton-series Syndrome, wherein the basic plot (a few paragraphs) was rolled in glue and then dipped in jargon and buzzwords, and this cycle was repeated until the conglomerate attained adequate size to justify a novel.  The interesting and true mathematical touches from book 1 are completely thrown out the window here in favor of using spiffy combinations of mathematical words in nonsense configurations. Main characters had interactions which served no purpose but to show off new, special jargon (and universes and technologies) invented by the rampaging and unsupervised kudzu-like authorial imagination. Most descriptions served no purpose. The stakes were raised so ridiculously high that the entirety of civilization was at stake, and this created no tension because of course Jean is going to pull some sneaky caper that resolves the entire thing.

The last third of the novel consists mainly of all permutations of the scene wherein two named characters meet, talk about their overarching conflict, try to cooperate while secretly scheming, then resolve their emotional baggage and say goodbye-for-all-eternity. The denouement is just a glued-on-jargon solution which magically (in heavy quotes: "technologically") hops to another universe for a stupendously oppressive deus ex machina.

Overall I don't regret reading the trilogy; I wish it had been better-managed, though, for a cleaner finish. And the driving mysteries from book 1 are never explicitly answered, so I could have stopped at book 1 (or 2) and just imagined, or preserved the sweet curiosity of an unresolved plot.

This post's theme word is damascene, "to gild," or "having a wavy pattern," or "sudden and significant." The damascene descriptions imbricate with damascene revelations.


G said...

What about translation it as "high roller"?

Lila is a complex system. said...

Yep, "high roller" seems like a suitable translation, too.