Hannu Rajaniemi – novelist and mathematician

Hannu Rajaniemi
Hannu Rajaniemi

Having studied mathematics and physics in his native Finland, Cambridge and Edinburgh, Hannu Rajaniemi has been based in that city for several years where he was a founding director of ThinkTank Maths, a mathematics innovation company. Active on the Scottish science fiction scene for almost a decade, his debut novel The Quantum Thief was published to great acclaim in 2010, nominated for a Locus Award and winning the Tähtivaeltaja Award. On the afternoon of 7th August, he spent an hour with Geek Chocolate, enjoying the festive sunshine off Edinburgh’s Old Town and discussing his new novel, The Fractal Prince, and what may lie beyond.

Geek Chocolate – There was a time when a good imagination and a firm grasp of science or engineering would be sufficient grounding to write a cracking science fiction novel, because so much had yet to be discovered or understood. Now, with the frontiers of science always being pushed back, is it a requirement to have an advanced degree to write science fiction?

Hannu Rajaniemi – No, I don’t think so. I think the important thing about science fiction has never really been the body of work that science consists of, it’s really been more the scientific method in terms of internal consistency of the things we’re playing with. Obviously real science is always a good source for ideas, and I do agree that not only has the nature of science, in terms of the white areas have shrunk and changed, but actually there’s been qualitative change as well. Everything is now connected; it’s very hard to change one thing, which is the traditional way to do science fiction, without considering all the repercussions.

GC – Tweak the world and see what happens?

HR – Yeah, that’s certainly the problem with near future science fiction, you have so many trends you have to simultaneously extrapolate, and things are changing so quickly. But I think that requires a certain kind of mind-set and the acceptance of the fact that you are going to get all of this stuff wrong, and maybe it’s almost more feasible to use the traditional method of science fiction extrapolation where it’s closer to fantasy where you just change things outside the laws of physics but then work out the consequences rigorously.

But I don’t think it’s necessary to have a degree. The only thing that is necessary is to have some appreciation of how science works, the process where you make the hypothesis, you make a guess, then you test it and modify it. Have some respect for logic and consistency, and in some sense faith, not faith in the sense of religious faith, but seriousness about your ideas. It’s a game you’re playing with them.

The Quantum Thief
The Quantum Thief

GC The Quantum Thief was very well received on publication, and now we have The Fractal Prince to look forward to. What can we expect, and do you have plans for a third in the series?

HR – Absolutely. The Fractal Prince was a challenge because I did want to write a book that was at least a bit different from The Quantum Thief even though it continues the same story, but there is an outline for a trilogy that I wrote at the outset, and it is roughly thematically organised. The Quantum Thief was very much identity being changed by technology and what impact we can expect future technologies to have on our identities.

That was really why Quantum Thief is centred around the gentleman thief character because 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. He’s a master of disguise, his changes his name, his face, all the time, even Arsène Lupin is not his real name, 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. So the underlying question of the trilogy, in some sense, originally was if Arsène Lupin lived in a post singularity future, could he really stop being Arsène Lupin or could he really change?

So the three books represent different aspects of that. The first book is all about memory, our past obviously being one thing that defines us and our identities, The Fractal Prince continues that to consciousness, our more direct experience of the reality around us, and again this comes to what we were talking about earlier of playing with ideas, so I take a couple of philosophy of mind concepts that I don’t necessarily believe in, which provide a nice playground for these kinds of ideas, and one idea there is that we can think of consciousness as a story that we can tell ourselves about what happens to us and what defines us and which actually creates this sense of continuity that we have from one moment to another.

So consciousness is kind of like a story told against death, and of course the most famous story told against death is the story of Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, so she has to keep telling the story to the king and include nested levels of further stories to keep the story going or she will be killed in the morning. So that is also reflected in the structure of Fractal Prince, so it does have a fractal structure in that sense.

Hannu reading from The Fractal Prince
Hannu reading from The Fractal Prince

The third book will deal with, if memory is the past and consciousness is the present, then what is the analogue of the future? And something I’ve ended up thinking about quite a lot recently are games. In games we seem to have a certain amount of freedom to choose who we are, and yet we have a very strong affinity for games. If you start playing a game, if it’s chess or Dungeons & Dragons or anything else, you very quickly become immersed in the framework that you’re in.

Playing chess, it’s almost physically difficult to make a move that is not allowed, so there’s something about games that really grabs us. And also because we do have freedom to design them, that is maybe going to be an element that is going to shape our identities in the future, and maybe give us more control over them.

GC – It’s interesting that you use the analogy of illegal moves and the feeling that you cannot take them, because if anybody is going to take an illegal move, it’s Jean le Flambeur.

HR – Exactly. Absolutely. So yes, there is going to be an interesting contradiction or conflict between those two ideas. Actually there is something to what you just said, which I think lies in the heart of more ideas driven things, things The Quantum Thief and the sequels fall into, which is, if you want to write about ideas, one nice thing to have is a paradox or contradiction, and I think these fall nicely into that category.

The first book, I guess you could say it was committing crimes in a society where there is ubiquitous surveillance, so how do you write an interesting story around that, so that detective work doesn‘t just become glorified Googling? So one answer to that is, what if you change the structure of the society so that certain values, such as privacy, are actually more important than solving crimes.

GC – It struck me that some chapters of The Quantum Thief, for example The Detective and the Chocolate Thief, would have been complete as short stories in and of themselves. Was that intentional, and do you see plans for the characters beyond the immediate books? I noticed there’s a reference to utility fog in Deus Ex Homine, for example. Did you imagine them as part of the same universe? Even on of your Twitter stories has a reference to “a balloon man over the Martian plains.”

HR – That certainly was not a conscious thing, and the chocolate chapter really was just meant to be a part of the novel, although it was one of the earlier chapters I wrote, so it probably did end up having a short story structure are well as serving as a self-contained character introduction.

I didn’t really intend all of my vague “similarities” to be set in the same universe, certainly not Deus Ex Homine, it’s not in the same universe, although His Master’s Voice perhaps has quite a lot of overlap in terms of ideas. I think all the characters in The Quantum Thief novels currently are going to have fairly complete arcs across the trilogy, so they may not materialise afterwards, but you of course never know. Obviously I put a lot of thought and effort into the setting, so at some point I’ll probably want to play with it again, but it might be a while after these, because I will want to do something a bit different.

GC – The loss of Jupiter, the event referred to as the Spike, will have had major repercussions throughout the solar system. Will that be addressed, and will we find out more about what caused it?

HR – You will certainly find out more about it in The Fractal Prince, although I think the final answers won’t really be revealed until the third book.

GC – So basically, buy the third book! Although technologically advanced, it’s a very pessimistic look at humanity. There are no altruistic characters in the novel, all of them are specifically interested in how their action will benefit them. Is that a reflection of how you see our species at the present time, or a side effect of the increasing isolation when technological interfaces replace human contact?

HR – Actually, that’s funny, because I don’t really see all of the characters as non-altruistic. I’ll have to think a bit to put it that into the context. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

The US edition of Quantum Thief
The US edition of Quantum Thief

The other point there, is that some of the post human evolutions in the book, certainly in all of Sobornost and parts of the Oubliette, they are a bit pessimistic, and they are deliberately so, in the sense that they are kind of attempting to be counter arguments to some of the wilder transhumanist fantasies, in arguing that there are elements of human nature that will not necessarily change, or if we make certain assumptions, such as uploading will happen before fully blown artificial intelligences, or if artificial intelligence ends up being one of those unrealisable dreams, then we are really going to have to deal with the consequences of human beings in a digital world that is completely incompatible with normal human values, and there is certainly potential there for massive human suffering and wrongness, although there are other societies in the setting which do try to show a bit more of a balanced view.

But that’s funny, I really never thought that none of the characters were altruistic. I suppose in The Quantum Thief, okay Jean is certainly very self-interested, Isidore is kind of interested in solving puzzles. I guess in the first book we don’t yet see what really motivates Mieli or Perhonen, I would say they are a bit more altruistic than the others.

GC Perhonen is probably one my favourite characters. I love that ship.

HR – Good. But okay, so certainly the self-interestedness of the non-Earthly nature of the characters is not deliberate, except perhaps in the case of Jean, and there are some moments where he has to make different choices. But yeah, you could certainly argue that the slight pessimistic flavour of the setting is deliberate.

GC – For all that, there are very human moments in the book, getting drunk at parties, indiscreet revelations to reporters, dressing up in costumes, the open mic night. How important was it to balance the science, to show that post-humans still have lives and relationships, even failed ones?

Hannu with The Fractal Prince
Hannu with The Fractal Prince

HR – I think it is absolutely crucial, and I think that is always the challenge, how do you keep humanity grounded? What I kind of quite firmly believe in is the layerdness of our lives and technologies, that even if we go very far into the future, some remnants of what we have done in the past and used in the past will remain.

At the moment you’ve got a piece of paper there and pens and so, and we have various digital paraphernalia around, and you’re using some of them at the same time for different purposes, and I think the nature of complex systems, our bodies and societies and cities and technologies, is that old things get repurposed for different purposes and remain within the larger system as kind of fossils, so I think that’s going to be the case in the future, and it least gives an excuse to include various things which are relatable to this day and the reader as well.

GC – Memory is flexible and erratic, and in the novel it turns out the supposedly infallible exomemory can be manipulated, and so is equally unreliable. With everyone carrying phone numbers, addresses and emails in their iPhones and nothing in their heads, calculators able to produce endless digits of Pi but nobody able to do trigonometry or use a slide rule, has our species become too reliant on technology?

HR – I think there’s going to be a point where that distinction will cease to matter, in that there’s already certain thought processes that wouldn’t be possible without tools. Now, personally, I do have fondness for simple tools like pen and paper, which actually gives you a different feeling of the whole thought process as using a computer, for example, and it’s sometimes calmer, but I think that we are long past the point of no return in terms of tool using.

Now what I think we going to see is that we’re going to become better at designing our tools so that they complement and augment our natural abilities, and whereas at the moment I think we are seeing quite a lot of distracting technology, because we are so early in terms of understanding how to create tools which are truly symbiotic that we do get this Facebook phenomenon of constant distractedness and shortened attention span and so on, but I think it’s a growing, teething pain that applies to many of the other things that you mentioned as well.

GC – A particular question we always ask, what classic science fiction novel or story would you like to see adapted into a film or television miniseries, and why?

HR – I’d quite like to see on of Roger Zelazny’s books, maybe Lord of Light, or Nine Princes in Amber, or something like that, because I think Zelazny has quite a rich vein of beautiful imagery and exotic environments, also drawing from cultures which haven’t been explored so much in popular media, especially in the case of Lord of Light, the Hindu mythology, and I think they’d make cracking either long or shorter form adaptations.

GC – In the book you namecheck John Carter, Sherlock Holmes and The War of the Worlds, and again, one of your tweets obliquely refers to Godzilla, but you don’t emulate any of those. What were your influences, either out of the classics or more recently?

HR – Well, actually, I already mentioned Zelazny who was a strong influence. Another author I really admire out of science fiction is Ian McDonald, who has this richness of language and imagination that I certainly try to emulate if not completely succeeding in that. There’s some Finnish authors, for example Mika Waltari who I like very much, who is the author of The Egyptian, and he has this sort of grasp of style as well. Apart from Zelazny and McDonald I can’t immediately name any direct science fictional influences.

Obviously there are a lot of deliberate homages to Maurice Leblanc, the creator of Arsène Lupin, his gentleman thief, and those stories as well as Arthur Conan Doyle, but in terms of drawing upon popular culture imagery, a lot of these things have become mythic, even though they are products of a specific time and specific authors, I think they do have, within the vocabulary of science fiction, almost the kind of mythic resonance as you would have referring to actual mythology, which I do a little bit as well.

GC – Mars is very in vogue at the moment, we had closest passage earlier in the year, the film John Carter, Alastair Reynolds has visited it twice, in Terminal World and the setting for much of this year’s Blue Remembered Earth, plus of course your own books, and just yesterday we had Curiosity successfully landing, a magnificent moment. Is Curiosity an affirmation that we still live in the space age, and optimistically or realistically, is this a destination or a stepping stone? What could come next out of this?

Words of Birth and Death
Words of Birth and Death

HR – I think Curiosity is a stepping stone, although in some sense it is also an admission that in terms of terms of real scientific impact, human spaceflight might not be the way to go in the future, which I think is a bitter pill to swallow in terms of a lot of science fictional dreams. Having said that, things in that respect could change if the right economic and political drivers emerge, but I think in terms of pure science, that is a reflection of what do we mean by space age?

The space age was driven by politics, you could argue that the purpose of all of the Apollo programme was to produce one television image of an astronaut standing on the Moon, and that’s what happened, and then after than we never went back to the Moon, pretty much. So in terms of science, I think we have admitted that all of that is not necessary, that we can actually send out machines to do the science and get much more bang for our buck, however, of course, that means that if we want to continue human spaceflight, we really need to invent new dreams that also lead to new economic drivers that make us want to go out into space. And there are ways to do that, but I think the new space age will have to be something completely different from the old space age, and let’s hope we see that happen.

GC – There has been a surge in the popularity of Scandinavian literature over the last few years, but it’s primarily thrillers. The stories in Words of Birth and Death were rooted in your homeland, but you’ve moved in a very different direction with your novels. Do you feel you represent Finland as the sole voice in science fiction?

HR – Oh, certainly not. There are many other very important figures in Finnish speculative fiction who has also made a name abroad like Johanna Sinisalo for example, who now may be known for writing the original story that the screenplay of Iron Sky is based on, as well as writing a very beautiful and serious novel called Troll – A Love Story which was, I think, very successful abroad as well, or Leena Krohn who’s a literary figure of monumental stature in Finland who has been very well received abroad. Certainly I’m not the only one. Maybe in this particular niche, I don’t really want to call myself a hard SF writer, but sort of new space opera style, I don’t think there are many others doing that, at least not in English. But no, there are plenty of other voices in Finland, and I hope to see more of them.

Actually, one very strong emerging thing in Finland is what you would call Finnish weird. There’s fantastic authors like Vini Hyvönen and Pasi Jääskeläinen who absolutely deserve to be translated, they are writing these beautiful, strange urban fantasies, China Miévillesque stories which are absolutely spectacular.

GC – You’re a Finnish writer, working in English, with a character inspired by a French writer, and your own primary language is mathematics. Did you just decide that you wanted your life to be as complicated for yourself as it is for your creations?

HR – Well, I think the more languages you speak, the easier it is to create collisions between ideas, and there is a complex relationship between writing in a second language and creativity. In terms of the Finnish/English aspect, a lot of second language writers I’ve spoken with have agreed with me that there’s an element of feeling like a different person when you speak another language, so you create a different identity for yourself in English or Finnish, so then the choice of which language to write in is almost a choice between your two selves, so which one do you prefer, or which view of reality suit’s the stories you are trying to tell.

In this sense, have certainly chosen my English speaking self over my Finnish speaking one. I think mathematics comes into in the sense that a lot of mathematics relates to what we talked about before, this process of choosing starting points and then trying to work out the logical consequences, and when you are trained in mathematics to appreciate intellectual rigour and stating things precisely and clearly, as well as developing some comfort with ideas which may be abstract or not immediately relatable to concrete things, hoping to benefit from all these things.

GC – The first story of yours I read was The Server and the Dragon in Engineering Infinity, I absolutely loved it, it tied hard science fiction with a fantastical tale, of love, science and rebirth. What was the inspiration?

Engineering Infinity
Engineering Infinity

HR – Well, this was quite a complicated sequence of events that led to this particular story. Originally I was trying to write a Hollywood comedy of remarriage in science fiction, you know these movies like Bringing Up Baby, these screwball comedies, and that failed completely, and I sort of had this idea that it had to somehow involve a baby universe, and I had a whole draft of a completely different kind of story that went nowhere and I wasn‘t satisfied with.

I had a Finnish friend visiting, and he showed me an article that had the headline “Lesbian Dragon Sex,” which turned out to be about massively multiplayer online game servers that were dedicated to players creating dragon characters and then role playing lesbian relationships between them, which somehow triggered some of the other elements that ended up in the story, combined with the earlier stuff. Usually I find this is the way stories gestate, you work yourself into some sort of state of frustration, with some sort of complete or partially incomplete idea, and then you need some external stimulus which may be completely weird and random which makes it all gel together.

GC – And you have a new story in the follow up collection, Edge of Infinity, which is out later in the year.

HR – The story in there is called Tyche and the Ants, which actually is set on the Moon, so it does have some resonance with the theme of human spaceflight in the future.

GC – And you’ve had a story in the New Scientist digital offshoot Arc.

HR – That was a very interesting mission, obviously a very interesting publication to be in. So, Simon Ings and the other editors of Arc wanted to create this new concept of a publication that would combine the style of Omni speculative elements and real science and essays and fiction, so the challenge there was to actually try to write a near future story that would tie in with some of the themes that Arc was wanting to explore. And again that took quite a while and quite a few false attempts, things related to brain/computer interfaces, also the more human aspects of death and loss and grief came together.

So the story is called Topside, and deals with a girl who loses her friend, and has to deal with her loss in a way that involves one of the remaining pieces of future technology, a future device called a halo, what you could imagine mobile phones evolving into when we start interacting with them with our brains. So there’s a question there as well of how is that going to change the way we perceive the world when suddenly we could potentially have an entirely new set of senses fed directly into our brains, as well as share all of that with others.

GC – And the spoken word collective Writers Bloc’, you’ve not performed since the Science Festival, but you’ve got a show coming up towards the end of October. Do we have firm details yet, and will it be horror themed for Hallowe’en?

HR – It will indeed be horror themed, we have various concepts kicking around, which the final decision hasn’t been made on, but I think we’ll be doing something ambitious with a strong performance aspect that may actually hopefully possibly surprise even our die hard fans.

GC – Excellent. I shall look forward to that. Thank you so much.

The Fractal Prince is now available from Gollancz

Special thanks to Hannu for taking the time to talk with us



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