Fiction Reviews

Fractal Noise

(2023) Christopher Paolini, Tor, £14.99, trdpbk, 284pp, ISBN 978-1-035-00112-5


This is a faster-than-light (FTL) but otherwise a hard-ish space opera. It is the 23rd century and the survey ship Adamura, nearly 45 light years from the nearest of a handful of star systems humanity has colonised, has arrived to explore the system of Theta Persei. So far mankind has yet to encounter or detect any alien civilisations. Yet as they pass through the system they detect a perfectly circular hole on the planet Talos VIII.

The hole 50 kilometres across and at least 30 kilometres deep as far as they can tell. The strange thing is that it is emitting a pulse of electromagnetic radiation every 10.6 seconds exactly at a frequency of 30.4 megahertz: the fractal noise of the title. The 'hole' is clearly artificial and equally clearly must have been constructed by some alien intelligence.

The 'hole' is unresponsive to signals sent it yet clearly any alien intelligence would have detected the exploration ship in the system.

Humanity has developed standing protocols for such incidents to protect it from any potentially hostile, FTL-capable, alien species found. Intelligence has to be obtained and returned to human space: with the potential of FTL: capable species it would be a race.

Flying a drone over the hole would not be possible as the electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) each have 58 terajoules worth of energy and such electromagnetic pulses would knock out any electrical kit above the hole in the direct path of the EMP. What's more, there was a 400 kilometre per hour wind blowing across the hole.

The decision was taken to send a lander down with an exploration party of five and a pilot. The exploration party would then spend a few days walking to the hole. However, there would be problems. They would have to battle against the wind as they went (though the return with the wind at their backs would be easier). Also, as they got closer to the hole the electromagnetic pulses would knock out communications, first with the lander and the Adamura and then, as they got closer still, local space-suit-to-space-suit comms would go…

The book's plot comes in two, unequal parts. The first fifth of Fractal Noise is very much in Alastair Reynolds space opera territory and firmly pushes the sense-of-wonder buttons.  Then there is a distinct change. The remainder concerns the trials of the expedition to the hole. This is more a human adversity tale than it is potential first contact, though some discoveries are made en route. And one has to wonder, as the novel progresses and the hardships and issues stack up, whether any of them will make it?

Fractal Noise is apparently a sort of a prequel to To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. This is a novel I have not read: at nearly 900 pages it is a doorstop of a book and I really, really hate bloat. However Mark B. has reviewed it (click on the afore link). Fortunately, as Fractal Noise is a prequel, you don't need to have read To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, so no problems there and, at under a third of the size, it is more digestible.

The book comes with a star map of the local group of stars to the Sun, which is not really needed but, hey, it is there. It also comes with a timeline for the Fractal Noise / To Sleep in a Sea of Stars universe, so I guess we can expect more 'Fractelverse' novels (that's the author's term not mine) and I see that there is already another, Unity, out.

At the end of the day this is a satisfying high-adventure story that almost manages to maintain an underlying first-contact suspense right up close to the end. And there is also an emerging theme of it not just being aliens with which we may have to contend but, most assuredly, our fellow humans on which we depend.

Jonathan Cowie


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