Review: The Fractal Man by J. Neil Schulman

J. Neil Schulman

By Eric Raymond

The Fractal Man (written by J.Neil Schulman, now available on Amazon) is a very, very funny book – if you share enough subcultural history with the author to get the in-jokes.

If you don’t – and in particular if you never met Samuel Edward Konkin – the man known as known as “SEKIII” to a generation of libertarians and SF fans before his tragically early death in 2004 – it will still be a whirligig of a cross-timeline edisonade, but some bits might leave you wondering how the author invented such improbabilities. But I knew SEKIII, and if there was ever a man who could make light of having a 50MT nuclear warhead stashed for safekeeping in his apartment, it was him.

David Albaugh is a pretty good violinist, a science-fiction fan, and an anarchist with a bunch of odd and interesting associates. None of this prepares him to receive a matter-of-fact phone call from Simon Albert Konrad III, a close friend who he remembers as having been dead for the previous nine years.

His day only gets weirder from there, as SAKIII and he (stout SF fans that they are) deduce that David has somehow been asported to a timeline not his own. But what became of the “local” Albaugh? Before the two have time to ruminate  on that, they are both timeshifted to a history in which human beings (including them) can casually levitate, but there is no music.

Before they can quite recover from that, they’ve been recruited into a war between two cross-time conspiracies during which they meet multiples of their own fractals – alternate versions of themselves, so named because there are hints that the cosmos itself has undergone a kind of shattering that may have been recent in what passes for time (an accident at the Large Hadron Collider might have been involved). One of Albaugh’s fractals is J. Neil Schulman.

It speeds up to a dizzying pace; scenes of war, espionage, time manipulations, and a kiss-me/kill-me romance between Albaugh and an enemy agent (who also happens to be Ayn Rand’s granddaughter), all wired into several just-when-you-thought-it-couldn’t-go-further-over-the-top plot inversions.

I don’t know that the natural audience for this book is large, exactly, but if you’re in it, you will enjoy it a lot. Schulman plays fair; even the weirdest puzzles have explanations and all the balls are kept deftly in the air until the conclusion.

Assuming you know what “space opera” is, this is “timeline opera” done with the exuberance of a Doc Smith novel. Don’t be too surprised if some of it sails over your head; I’m not sure I caught all the references. Lots of stuff blows up satisfactorily – though, not, as it happens, that living-room nuke.

(Reprinted by permission from Eric Raymond’s Armed and Dangerous blog).

One thought on “Review: The Fractal Man by J. Neil Schulman”

  1. I’m currently about a third of the way through, and I have to say Schulman has written a very readable book, with an interesting premise and consistent entertainment. It’s kind of like early L. Neil Smith with a dash of Robert Anton Wilson.

    At the start of Chapter 16, I’ve noticed what may be a small failure of science fictional worldbuilding: In describing an alternate timeline where human beings (and cats!) can fly, Schulman’s narrator tells us that high-rises have access hatches on the roofs, but no ground level entrances. That seems really awkward; it means that the only way anything can get into a high-rise is by being physically carried by one or more human beings. No putting your new refrigerator on a dolly and wheeling it up steps or into an elevator; you have to physically lift it. Better not drop it, because refrigerators don’t fly! This seems so awkward that I can’t imagine many buildings lacking freight entrances at ground level. Of course that takes away one of Schulman’s minor narrative points. In any case, it’s a small oversight.

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