Fractal Noise – Once More Unto The Abyss

So called “Artificial Intelligence” has begun to worm its way into our tech oriented daily life. With numerous puff pieces about the powers of ChatGPT and other deep language models, it’s hard to escape the anxiety and hype surrounding the supposed untapped potential it could bring to our worlds, and the ways it could “redefine” work. Attached at the hip are conversations around the quakes set off by A.I. art, and its effect on the workaday artists that create pieces for customers, both corporate and human. One of the several hearts of the issue is the methodology by which these A.I. programs “learn” by “training” themselves on stolen art hosted on the myriad sites artists share and collect their creations. Another is the lack of soul and human connection to art. The bit that makes you as a member of this species see your own feelings recognized and mirrored back at you, telling you it’s okay, there are others who know your pain. I bring this up because the next book in question fell into this conversation, becoming a focal point for a short while regarding the future of art commissioned for book covers.

Maybe you knew this was coming, or maybe you had a little bit of hope for my poor soul. If you fall into the latter group, I thank you for the confidence, but I’m here to disappoint you. Fractal Noise by Christopher Paolini found its way into my decrepit, pain-loving hands, and wormed its way through my eyes deep into the folds of my brain. Luckily for you, and for me, this was a far shorter endeavor than its predecessor. Also luckily for you, my pain has blossomed into a beautiful bouquet of flowers fed on frustration but also a little hope. You may be asking yourself, “why the hell are you here talking about this book, didn’t you hate To Sleep In A Sea of Stars?” Good question, and greater point. My girlfriend and the folks I surround myself with at The Quill To Live tried their damndest to stop me, but I am what I am. So let’s do this.

Fractal Noise is a sort of prequel to Paolini’s first foray into the world of adult science fiction. Humanity has yet to encounter sentient alien life in the cosmos, though we have begun to spread our tendrils into the gaping maw of space.  Alex Crichton, a xenobiologist, is running from the darkness of the universe. His wife was ripped from him by the universe, so he signs on to contract with an expeditionary company looking for new habitable planets. On one such expedition, they find a gargantuan hole in the surface of a planet that is too perfect to be a natural formation. Not to mention it emits a pulsing noise every nine seconds that no ones seems to be able to figure out. So Alex, along with the gregarious, pleasure loving russian, Pushkin, the dark and religious Indelicato, and the blank slate salaryman Chen, volunteer to take a ground mission to explore the mysterious hole. What awaits at the center of it may change how humanity views the cosmos forever.

I’m sure you’re expecting me to share the gruesome details of this trainwreck, laying out a horrifying scene while laughing at the abyss. But I, much like you, found myself surprised by the result. In all honesty, I found myself enjoying the experience even if I found the book lacking. The shorter length seems to have given Paolini a chance to focus, building a tighter narrative with a central thesis that expands beyond “good vs evil.” The themes are stronger and much more realized, even if they are hamfisted. The characters, while shallow and dependable tropes, have slightly more contour to them. The story is streamlined with a clear goal that Paolini can’t circle around. The end must be reached, and drawing it out would detract from the goals of the story.

It was hard not to be drawn to the book, in the way that Alex was pulled to the hole at the center of it. It contained and relied on classic tropes of psychological horror embedded within a science fiction frame. It was not a subtle experience, its themes practically screaming in the dark so you could hunt them down like a slasher. And that was one of the main issues with Fractal Noise. What little work I could put into the book, to discern its mysteries, was done for me. It was clear from the outset what the metaphor was going to be, and by the end that trajectory had not altered course. Like the protagonists, I too trudged through the grit to arrive at the same conclusion. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what the big dumb object is, it’s what you get out of the experience that matters. And while I didn’t come away with a treasure trove, I had a small glimmer of hope for the future of what the Fractalverse might offer.

Paolini seems to be trying to inject meaning into a cold, dark, empty and ultimately uncaring universe – an ethos I can get behind. It’s a meaning that doesn’t come from an external source, but one that is fostered from within. Survival is one thing, but living is another, and Alex is on the cusp of realizing it through his journey. As heavy handed, and not in a good way, as the journey is, I prefer Paolini’s instinct to strive He seems to be pushing towards something interesting, even if the execution is lacking, and lacking it is.

As much as Paolini strives to derive meaning out of Alex’s journey, he trips over his own shallow pool in the process. He’s given the supporting cast a few more edges, rounding them out, but also forcing them to rely on a single guiding principle. For a story about Alex’s journey, the two opposing ideals, represented by Pushkin and Indelicato, stay completely away from him. Instead, they focus on Chen giving Alex room to isolate himself and focus on his own development. This is heightened by static interference that builds as the story progresses. It creates tension in certain moments, while completely destroying introspective conversations between Alex and the rest of the team. A fun read would be a physical manifestation in Alex’s lack of interest in Puskin’s and Indelicato’s worldviews, but it still destroys the boundaries for him to push against and define himself. He takes no chances on reflection, pushing forward slowly, and without input from the rest of the team. He refuses vulnerability in the darkness, and yet finds sanctuary and revelation.

It’s hard not to spoil the ending, but let’s just say certain folks don’t make it, and some folks do. And while I was prepared for that eventuality, I was also extremely disappointed by its arrival. For a book that felt it needed to hammer its themes home, providing a literal thud as the hammer strikes the anvil every several paragraphs, the denouement left a lot to be desired. Revelations are kept close to the chest and the journey is the point. Not an inherently bad way to end a book that tries to steep itself in intrapersonal conflict, but it feels thin here. Especially since so much of the journey is just dropping one’s gaze to the steps ahead and just getting through it at the expense of those around you. Isolation is scary, and in some ways it’s treated as a virtue within Fractal Noise. Reaching out into the darkness is not necessarily treated as a weakness, but it’s not exactly rewarded. It lacks the human touch that wants to drive the dark heart of the story.

That’s not even to mention some of the more technical issues with the book. The shorter length allows Paolini to dispense with some of the worldbuilding, but it feels like it borrows from reader’s notions of the Fractalverse from TSIASOS. For a prequel, it leaves a lot unexplained about the universe, and not in a tantalizing and mischievous way. It also doesn’t seem to add to TSIASOS in a meaningful way. I’m all here for separate stories that have no relation, but it seems to survive on the notion that you will read it for more Fractalverse content. Character motivations are sort of just explained away and the plot is allowed to proceed because someone doesn’t want to dig into “personal reasons” as an answer. Sure, horror and a need to explain the darkness of the universe are compelling narratives, but I doubt I could get away with wanting to work on a potentially history and spirituality changing expedition with “personal reasons” as to why I volunteered.

As much as I want to be done with Paolini’s Fractalverse, I don’t think I’ll be able to close Paolini’s box after Fractal Noise. But I’ll be honest, I’m not sure where this book should exist within your own reading list. If you are like me, and feel a dark compulsion, I recommend it if you really like sci fi psychological horror. But I don’t know if this is a book that necessarily needed to exist within the Fractalverse except to profit off of the worldbuilding already done. To me it doesn’t make a logical starting point either, unless you’re willing to accept the completely different tone and story, hoping for a more vignette-style approach to Paolini’s new universe. All I know is that I’m probably eternally doomed to wander this purgatory, but it would be nice to have someone along for the ride for a change. It would help to have a little more humanity within this cold, accelerating void.

Fractal Noise – An expected abyss, robbed of meaning and recommendation.
-Alex

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An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.

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