Review: The Causal Angel

The Causal Angel is the last novel in Hannu Rajaniemi’s trilogy about Jean le Flambeur, arch-thief and conman in a post-singularity, far-future universe populated by digital minds and deadly viruses.

War is swallowing the solar system – a war fought over the very secret of existence. Jean and his occasional ally Mieli navigate a complex network of alliances as they try to avert disaster and resist the Sobornost, a tyrannical collective of uploaded minds who want to enslave all of humanity.

It’s a little disappointing compared to the first two novels, which balanced dizzying flurries of neologisms (“spime”, “qupt”, “zoku”) with an intricate, precise prose style that brought Rajaniemi’s vision of an intricate posthuman solar system filled with unimaginably advanced technology into focus.

The Causal Angel, by contrast, feels airless and superficial. The prose no longer lives up to the dazzling complexity of the society Rajaniemi’s created, and so the various twists and turns of the narrative feel unearned, inconsequential. The trilogy as a whole is also, I think, lacking a worldview: Jean and Mieli are the only characters who feel at all real, in that the entire world seems constructed around them. What would everyone else in the universe be doing if Jean and Mieli weren’t carrying out their Extremely Important Missions? I have no idea.

Or – perhaps the worldview of this series is just very individualistic; very Silicon Valley. It’s a story about individual brilliance and being the specialest person in the universe; about being a disruptor, to use the dreaded tech-speak. Which is disappointing. This is a trilogy about the Far Future, a future so changed as to be unimaginable. And yet we have this very familiar, very capitalist Great Man narrative. It’s a story that’s a lot more small-c conservative than it thinks it is.

I’ve been thinking a lot about small-c conservative SF recently: when I was at Worldcon last week, someone asked a panel of critics whether they could recommend some books that were “more conservative” than the ones they’d been talking about. I’m pretty sure that what that audience member meant was not “do you know of any books that subscribe to a conservative worldview?” but “do you know of any good books that don’t feature women, people of colour, disabled people or queer people?” The critics’ answer was basically “no” (or, actually, “I hear Terry Goodkind is still publishing…”), because those kinds of texts are not where the good work in the field is being done at the moment, generally speaking. But recommending Rajaniemi’s work might be a good way to troll people trying to disguise bigotry as personal politics. The Quantum Thief trilogy is small-c conservative (by some definitions), and it has lesbians kissing. So…it’s doing something right.

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