The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi (book review).

Escaping from Earth just a whisker or two ahead of the conscienceless, self-replicating Dragons unleashed on the planet by Matjek Chen of the Sobornost, gentleman thief Jean le Flambeur is finally free. His one-time captor, Mieli, is herself now a captive of the zoku. Her ship, Perhonen, torn apart by wildcode and the Sobornost’s crystal hunters. The stored minds and stories of an entire city are in Jean’s care, as is Chen’s sole remaining gogol. Chen-Prime and the rest of his copyclan have been subsumed by the All-Defector, a game-theoretical anomaly that never cooperates and always wins. Jean’s free…of everything but the promises he’s made.


Space opera is supposed to be easy-reading escapism, all high-octane action and snappy dialogue, not the whip-smart combination of the aforementioned qualities with hard science, strong character beats and complex narrative structure. More of the same, in other words but when the reference points are ‘The Quantum Thief’ and ‘The Fractal Prince’, that doesn’t sound so damning.

The Causal Angel’ is the third and concluding chapter in the story and it’s appropriate that the novel exists in super-position – both a fast-paced, pulpy adventure and a treasure trove of ideas, both a particle and a wave – because the focus this time is on the zoku, a loose collective whose social structure is based on using quantum entanglement as a kind of social currency and who have taken gamification to its ultimate extreme.

If you’re any kind of geek, dear reader, the zoku are a delight. It’s like the endpoint of ‘The Rapture Of The Nerds’, owing as much to modern geek culture as it does to the ‘Culture’ of Iain M Banks. The zoku show Hannu Rajaniemi to have the same kind of impish humour as Banks, if not quite in the same league as the latter’s magnificent Culture ship names. Still, ‘The Causal Angel’ starts namedropping tropes and terms from 21st century pop culture right from the off, as if challenging you to catch ‘em all.

To pick a few of the more obvious ones, the intelligence zoku is called the Great Game. One of the war response zokus (zokii?) is called the Evangelion zoku. The group responsible for managing the mass transit system is the Tube zoku (their jewel ‘a white disc surrounded by a red ring, with a blue bar across it’ (p.107)). The ‘notch cubes’ that make up the building blocks of the zoku’s artificial worlds are presumably named after the creator of Minecraft. The Gringotts zoku are responsible for storing quantum treasures and so on and so forth. In a brilliant meta-fictional shout-out, there’s even a gunmaker named Chekhova.

But it’s not just the zoku’s gleeful pop culture references, as with its prequels, ‘The Causal Angel’s neologisms and futurisms are almost all references to modern or recent philosophy and science, in a way that simultaneously makes perfect sense and also acts as a handy reference.

One of the complaints that’s been levelled against Rajaniemi’s world-building is that it’s confusing and that it bombards the reader with new terms and concepts and expects them to cope on their own. Yet the series’ lack of hand-holding is one of its strengths, giving Rajaniemi the freedom to build a much richer world than if he stopped every five seconds to explain but even if that’s not the case, no reader is on their own. The entire rich world that informs ‘The Causal Angel’ is just a few clicks away.

Sobornost. Federovism. Zoku. P vs NP. Gogols, Von Neumann machines, Newcomb’s Paradox…the novel is a mind-expanding primer of cool and nerdy ideas, fleshing out its narrative with a more literate and valuable version of ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Doctor Who’s nonsensical technobabble.

Again, it’s a credit to Rajaniemi that the plot functions perfectly even if the reader glosses over the lack of glossary and that’s one of the reasons it functions so well as space opera but the novel’s vocabulary is part of what gives the setting a sense of both depth and of growing organically from the soil of our own present.

But ‘The Causal Angel’s vocabulary is by no means its only source of richness. There’s an interesting interview with Rajaniemi where he says: “One of the things I found most interesting about Arsène Lupin, who was kind of the model for Jean le Flambeur, is that his identity is very fluid… his identity is created for himself, and yet he also has the cycle of attempted redemption, trying to stop being Arsène Lupin, which always fails. … If Arsène Lupin lived in a post singularity future, could he really stop being Arsène Lupin?”

That question is at its heart of this concluding novel. Amidst anti-matter explosions and posthuman grifting is a story about the characters’ struggle to embrace and embody the better angels of their nature and in a future where identity is fluid and personalities are iterative and branching, that’s a phrase which might be taken alarmingly literally.

Because as the name ‘The Causal Angel’ suggests, it’s a novel about choice and consequences. That might not sound like a particularly big deal, but so many fictions seem afraid to follow up on their characters’ decisions or even to present them with hard choices in the first place.

The Causal Angel’ not only follows up on its threats and those of its preceding novels, but twists the knife beautifully by constantly asking Jean why does he do what he does? When he’s got away with his prize, what drags him back into the fray? What makes him tick?

Rajaniemi’s previous novels did an incredibly clever job of blurring medium and message, using literary tricks to frame the story in such a way that it reinforces and highlights the theme of the book and ‘The Causal Angel’ continues the trend. It shifts in perspective from one character to the next are often accompanied by shifts in time as well, presenting the cause before the effect.

The result is a narrative chopped up into slivers and reassembled in overlap, but done so deftly that it enhances the suspense rather than undercutting it. You see the result of a choice before you know how the characters got there and learning what demons drove them can also add a jolt of pathos to the scene.

The zoku, the posthuman collective placed under ‘The Causal Angel’s microscope, is another exploration of choice and consequences of the concept of free will. Members of a zoku are driven by ‘volition’, a kind of collective drive or determination. In a society where everything is structured as a game, from war to death itself, the act of levelling up, gaining ‘entanglement’, which is simultaneously currency and status, is the result of serving the volition of the greater zoku.

Quoting Rajaniemi’s interview again: “In games we seem to have a certain amount of freedom to choose who we are, and yet we very quickly become immersed in the framework that you’re in. It’s almost physically difficult to make a move that is not allowed…” and that’s one of the interesting things about the zoku. As a member levels-up, their focus increases…narrowing and refining them into a blade:-

‘That is the paradox of the zoku: the more you achieve, the more entanglement you have, and thus more power to impose your will upon the zoku’s collective reality. But at the same time, as you advance, you are sculpted by the zoku jewel into a perfect member of the collective. If I know Mieli she will rise through the ranks quickly. Soon, she will be like Barbicane, a shell of herself, trapped inside her role in the zoku Circles.’ p.122

Mieli, thrust somewhat reluctantly into the Great Game zoku’s cloak-and-dagger, gets more focus here than in the series’ previous novels. She’s our window into zoku society and its workings and it’s a credit to Ranajiemi’s writing that these work as well as they do because Mieli ought to be a terrible protagonist.

She’s humourless and angsty and nowhere near as fun as Jean to be around. Yet, there’s a core strength to her character which makes her hugely sympathetic and a suitable foil for le Flambeur’s flamboyance and, for all that, it’s a quieter and more subtle kind of triumph, her character arc is stronger and more compelling than even Jean’s. When you close this book, you won’t believe it could have ended any other way.

I’ve waxed somewhat enthusiastic but ‘The Causal Angel’ is not a perfect novel. In the past, Rajaniemi has scrupulously avoided the kind of pace-wrecking infodump which often pollutes hard SF, but one or two have managed to sneak into this final instalment. The effect is far from fatal, but in a story and setting so elegantly assembled the clumsiness stands out.

Part of the problem is the character responsible for delivering most of said exposition. The zoku elder Barbicane might be a quantum posthuman role-playing an oafish Victorian steampunk blowhard because he likes how he feels, but ultimately he’s still an oafish blowhard, monologues and all as he rapidly overstays his welcome.

It’s also slightly disappointing to have the Sobernost reduced from a complex adversary with a mad, magnificent folly of a plan to little more than the stormtroopers of a bigger bad, but, really, I’m clutching at straws here. Despite possibly being the weakest in the trilogy, at least in terms of narrative, ‘The Causal Angel’ is still a novel of grand ideas, wrapped up in the trappings of old-school space opera. It’s all things to all people, opening up to deliver whatever you want from it – action and adventure, memorable characters, rich stories and weighty themes. This is what Science Fiction should aspire to.

Martin Jenner

September 2014

(pub: TOR/Forge. 410 page hardback. Price: $25.99 (US), $29.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2951-6)

check out website: www.tor-forge.com

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