Last Updated on February 14, 2024
Fractal Noise is the second book within Christopher Paolini’s Fractalverse, serving as a prequel to 2020’s To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. You don’t need to have read the first book to understand what’s happening in Fractal Noise, as this story is much more scaled down: playing out over a number of days in a single location as opposed to the epic, sweeping scope of …Sea of Stars.
If you have read …Sea of Stars, you may recall mention of the ‘Anomaly’ and it is the discovery of this that is the focus of Fractal Noise. The crew of the Adamura, on a survey mission, discovers a 50km wide hole, perfectly circular, on the surface of uninhabited planet Talos VII. The hole continues down into the planet so far they cannot get readings on its true depth. Is this evidence of sentient life in the universe, besides humans? As they examine the hole from orbit they realise it is broadcasting a mathematical pattern out into space, it is producing Fractal Noise.
Some crew volunteer to land on Talos VII and make the trip across the surface to the hole to try and investigate it’s purpose. The book is primarily the story of this journey. We have one POV, that of Alex Crichton (no relation to John or Michael), a man deep in the throes of grief. The love of his life, Layla, died not long before he ran away to join the Adamura. Alex is not in the best of mental states, to say the least. He takes it upon himself to travel to the hole in honour of his lost wife, much as he would otherwise prefer not to.
Four crew set out on the surface to walk nearly 100km to the Anomaly, including Crichton, as the noise emitted from the hole prevents landing any closer. Harsh winds batter the surface of the planet and the away team have to struggle against it as they advance. Tragedy begins to affect the crew as one member of the team suffers a catastrophic leg break. Tensions flare between the God-fearing team leader and the nihilistic hedonist geologist as both try to win over the hearts and minds of their fellow crew.
Crichton, meanwhile, spends his time zoning out and reliving memories of Layla. Unaware of the severity and extent of the mounting pressure around him, it comes as some surprise to him when order breaks down completely. Lost in his own grief, Alex convinces himself that if the expedition ends, so too will he. Forcing himself to continue, he eventually reaches the Anomaly and finds a reason to continue living.
Fractal Noise is more character study than epic Sci-fi in nature; it is instead a musing on grief and purpose. The debates between the religious and secular characters, Alex’s internal conflicts on his role in his wife’s death, the unknown purpose of the Anomaly or who created it, all come together to form a more philosophical work then we saw in …Sea of Stars.
The execution of Fractal Noise’s delve into the human psyche is, at times, a little clumsy. The faithful and faithless duo of characters are positioned at total extremes to one another with no flexibility – making it rather obvious that they’re only there to make a point. Crichton’s situation is awfully similar to Kyra’s from …Sea of Stars; they both experience grief in the violent loss of a partner, they’re both investigating alien artefacts through a xenoarchaeological lens while on ‘routine surveying missions’, they both end up alone and separated from their crew, and it ended up feeling a touch lazy having these very direct links between the two characters drawn out for us.
On the theme of clumsiness, there are times when the language used felt a little overdone. If you feel the need to use uncommon vocabulary, it is best to do so sparingly. The word ‘inexorable’ appeared three times in under 250 pages, which was glaringly obvious to me and made it feel out of place each time.
Overall, Fractal Noise does deliver a competent exploration of grief and the human search for purpose but that wasn’t what I was expecting when I started reading. It is a very different book to …Sea of Stars and I had envisaged more of the hard sci-fi I enjoyed from that. Fractal Noise feels a bit confused because of this; the story could easily have been played out in a modern-day, realistic setting to the extent that the sci-fi elements are largely superfluous. While it will take you through a harrowing tale of loss, it is occasionally let down by clumsy language and world-building. It seems to add little to the Fractalverse lore at large but remains an interesting enough encounter.
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