Quantum Angel

kindle & butterflyThere has been much talk about science fiction turning from its themes and milieu from the outer space adventures of “classic science fiction” to the “inner spaces” of modern sci-fi — I prefer the “ontological dominant” thesis, put forward by Brian McHale: Western fiction in general has turned away from the prior epistemological themes to ontological questions, as we have moved from modern times to the (increasingly self-reflective) post-modern ones.

This summer, I have had the rare pleasure of reading few novels that I have really enjoyed. One was the Blindsight by Peter Watts — a complex novel outwardly narrating a desperate expedition to intercept an alien artefact, which actually turns into discussion about the nature of consciousness, whether we humans are actually “conscious”, and to a what degree, and whether being “conscious” is really necessarily an evolutionary benefit. Another one was The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi — the final book in the “Jean Le Flambeur” trilogy. Also here, the ontological themes dominate: what constitutes a “world”, or a “self”, how multiple both can be, and what kind of opportunities for innovation (both scientific, as well as dramatic) will those multi-realities open up.

For a game studies scholar particularly one faction, the zoku, of this far future civilization scenario are of interest. Their culture is one that appears to descend from MMORPGs and their players, and they provide a counter-force to another posthuman group, the sobornost. The name of sobornost refers back to a concept of Orthodox Christianity, the harmonious spiritual unity, and it is interesting to note that even while the mixed, polyphonic and conflicting world of Rajamäki’s trilogy carefully avoids any simple good versus evil opposition, the opposition between “orthodoxy” and “ludic mindset”, or seriousness and playfulness perhaps, emerges as one of the clear division lines in the work. There are also many amusing references to pick up (“Saint McGonigal”, “Huizinga-zoku”, etc.) for those versed in gamification and game studies. For a Finn, the Oortians, living in the cold margins of the Solar System, carry many familiar elements, even while their culture is more like some general, archaic Finno-ugrig shamanism, than the culture of Finns themselves — just the occasional Finnish word underlines the cultural connection.

The complexities of quantum entanglements, nano-scale technologies, simulated realities and multiple-copy personalities go beyond my science literacy, but it is remarkable evidence of Hannu Rajamäki’s storytelling gifts that even this very dense novel, moving at high speed, remains genuinely interesting and even emotionally touching — a true sign of lasting value. It is finally Mieli, the female, winged Oortian fighter spirit, who becomes the true main character of this final novel, and it is also she who becomes the titular “Causal Angel”, who is capable of turning the end of the world into a new beginning. This is a book series which clearly profits from multiple readings, to appreciate its multiple threads and dimensions.

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the University of Tampere, Finland.