Friday, February 09, 2024

Karen S. Wiesner: {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Fractal Noise, A Fractalverse Novel by Christopher Paolini

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Fractal Noise, A Fractalverse Novel

by Christopher Paolini

by Karen S. Wiesner

In the previous two weeks, I reviewed Christopher Paolini's previous Fractalverse novel, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, in an article called "Combating Big Book Overwhelm with Audiobooks"; I also reviewed "Unity", An Interactive Fractalverse Story. The Fractalverse Universe encompasses all known space and time, binding everyone everywhere as fellow travelers.

Before we get started, a word of explanation about the order of this series is necessary. Here's what's currently available in the order the stories were published:

1.     To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (2020)

2.     "Unity" (2021)

3.     Fractal Noise (2023)

Influenced by an intense nightmare he'd had while writing Inheritance, the fourth in his Inheritance Cycle, Paolini wrote an initial draft of Fractal Noise (originally a novella) but wasn't happy with it and set it aside. Eventually, he moved on to To Sleep…, also set in the Fractalverse Universe. This project took him much longer than he intended to finish--years--and only after he completed that did he go back to Fractal Noise. With new ideas and direction, he did a major revision and it became a 300+ page novel. It's unclear when "Unity" was written but I'm going to guess soon after To Sleep… was completed, probably before he revised Fractal Noise into a novel. In any case, the chronological sequence of the three stories is the exact opposite of the publication order:

1.     Fractal Noise

2.     To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

3.     "Unity"

According to the timeline included on the website, the Great Beacon on Talos VII, which is the focus of Fractal Noise, was discovered between 2234 and 2237. It was the first alien artifact discovered in the universe. Twenty-three years later, between 2257 and 2258, the events of To Sleep… took place, starting on the moon Adrasteia. "Unity" follows To Sleep… chronologically, and within the "Unity" story, on a doctor's report, the date is listed as "2335" so it's been just over 75 years.

As for suggested reading order, I would have to say either Fractal Noise or To Sleep… should come first; it doesn't actually matter which. "Unity" should follow the reading of To Sleep… regardless of what order you read the two novels. I prefer following chronology as a general rule for all series, but the author felt that To Sleep… "would be a better introduction to the Fractalverse". I read To Sleep… first because it was published first. I followed that with Fractal Noise because it was published second. I only found out about "Unity" after going to the author's website. If I'd had a choice, I would have read Fractal Noise first, then To Sleep… and finally "Unity". Make of that what you will.

I have to comment on the fact that I didn't understand the connection between the two novels published in the series beyond that they shared the same world. I wasn't sure if there were characters in common, a plot, place, or something else. It wasn't until after I read both books (and the short story) and then listened to the audiobook version of To Sleep… that I finally figured out the connection between the two novels: Alien artifacts. That's what ties the two books together, other than the shared universe. The first alien artifact was discovered in Fractal Noise, the second in To Sleep… The question whether the same alien species created both artifacts is much tougher to answer, and I couldn't find a definitive answer to that anywhere online and it's lost in the combined 1,184 pages of the two books. But at least I discovered that there really wasn't any other connection between the two novels beyond the shared universe and ancient alien relics. Sounds simple, but it was frustrating not knowing that. I always feel like crucial information that most readers will wonder about needs to be included in the series blurb. Saves on wear and tear of reader nerves to know something unifying like that upfront.

So, the focus of Fractal Noise is the anomaly found on Talos VII, an otherwise uninhabited planet. From space, the stellar survey crew onboard the SLV Adamura sees a pit fifty kilometers wide, definitely not natural. This giant abyss is broadcasting a signal, to whom or what, is unknown. Eventually (in To Sleep…), this hole is called the Great Beacon. A small team is sent out to check it out, and most of their journey has to take place on foot with limited supplies and protection. The group of four consists of (to be blunt):

1)    A stereotypical religious fanatic who believes no one and nothing matters other than divine will. This woman is one crack away from becoming the next Interstellar Psycho. Bad luck for everyone involved: She's made the team leader.

2)    An opinionated tough guy with a chip on his shoulder who starts out as fun and personable, but then becomes the religious fanatic's archenemy as he vies for control of the team and the mission.

3)    A spineless weakling who will cave to whoever's strongest at the moment, incapable of doing anything but flying into the wind from one moment to the next, especially after he's injured so badly, he has to be carried the rest of the way.

4)    A scarred-from-childhood man so immersed in his grief from losing the woman he loved--the woman he's only realized in retrospect that he mistreated before her violent death by a tigermaul--that he doesn't really care about anyone or anything except in reflex. This person is Dr. Alex Crichton, a xenobiologist.

Alex is the main character. None of the other three major characters are really given more than a brief sketch in terms of fleshing out. We learn very little about them, beyond what's absolutely needed to tell the story, and so the book always felt a little lopsided to me. I might have learned too much about Alex, who became a little sickening since he was a train wreck personality, and not nearly enough about the other three pivotal characters. The loss of personal information became harder to take especially as the first two characters disintegrated in their escalating conflict with each other, the third became less and less useful to the team as he cringed away from their ongoing battle, with only Alex trying to keep the peace--mainly by staying out of the argument altogether. Alex is also the one who ended up picking up the pieces in the fallout and kept them moving forward steadily toward their goal. Clearly, he should have been team leader, but until someone is under duress in the field, I guess it's hard to know who might crack first. I suspect the captain of the ship believed he'd chosen the last person who seemed capable of falling apart as the team leader. Bad call leads to big mistake.

The conflicts with each other, the conflicts of their individual pasts that are motivating and driving each of them, and the conflict with the relic they're moving toward steadily despite all that's preventing them from reaching it are intriguing. The tension culminated, small outbursts becoming bigger and bigger, the results of the team’s in-fighting and bad luck making the journey even more stressful. I truly enjoyed the trek across the planet to the beacon, providing constant suspense with the internal conflicts of the team, physical injuries, the mission in jeopardy nearly from the beginning, and the things thrown in their way, like the growing, deafening noise, "turtles"--creatures that were obviously guarding the broken beacon's equipment, and numerous equipment failures.

Earlier, I said that the *focus* of Fractal Noise is the beacon. However, it's in no way the *purpose* of the story. If you don't want spoilers, don't read the next two paragraphs bracketed with asterisks:

**Within the pages of this book, you don't ever learn what the beacon is, who put it there, why it was constructed, what it was supposed to do or supposed to contact. You learn nothing important about the Great Beacon by the end. It's simply a relic that might have been covered over by the sands of time if not for the signal it was sending out that unfortunately captured attention from this crew and later the world. By the time the story To Sleep in a Sea of Stars rolls out, humans still don't know anything solid about that ancient artifact. In that book, it's revealed that they're called whirlpools by the Wranaui and that there are many of them around the universe. The Wranaui allies believe the Vanished created them but even they don't know for sure. But none of the species can even venture a guess what they're for.

Anyone reading this would have found it frustrating not to learn anything worthwhile about the relic. Initially, it seemed like the point of the story, though the back cover blurb did make it clear that the "ghosts of the past" following the members of the team were the true focus. In the end, Alex came to grips with his past and his grief. That's the best thing that happened--the only bit of closure provided. I presume he made it back to the ship, maybe with the weakling still alive, and that's how Kira and the other characters in the time period of To Sleep… know the beacon even exists.**

Despite a bit of annoyance about not getting any part of what I felt the story was building toward, I did find the story worthwhile reading. I savored the journey, weathering the disappointment in the end, yes, but I remained excited about where this series could be leading. Of the three Fractalverse stories I've read thus far, Fractal Noise was my favorite. Maybe in subsequent books, we'll learn what the beacon in Fractal Noise was intended for. At the end of To Sleep…, Kira learned that the Maw had left seven other parts of itself in different locations within the universe, and she intended to track them down alone. Perhaps we'll learn more about the rest of her journey to either kill or convert those seven fragments, as she did before.

As a reader, I look for closure in a story and series, and I felt both Fractalverse novels left a lot of the opposite, though not in a way that could be described as a deal breaker. I accepted the loose ends, though I'm not sure all readers would be as forgiving, because I'm eager to know more about this world. I suspect the author will produce many other stories that are connected to the universe but not tied closely to them, leaving even more fragments littered around the Fractal galaxy. Eventually, there may be a way to tie them all together--what I'm ultimately hoping for. In the meantime, there has been talk about either a film or TV series adaptation of To Sleep… with the author and his sister already writing scripts and presumably too occupied for Paolini to work on the next installment in the series. I look forward to hearing more about whether the visual adaptation goes forward, assuming that, in some way, the events of Fractal Noise and "Unity" will be included in that. At this point, until the author gives us a clue, who knows what might happen next in the Fractalverse? If you have any conjecture, leave a comment.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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