Best known for his fantasy series The Inheritance Cycle, author Christopher Paolini first delved into science fiction with his award-winning 2020 novel To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. This new novel, Fractal Noise, serves as a prequel and shows the horrifying events behind the scenes.
When a team of scientists and astronauts scouting out a group of planets discover a strange and perfectly circular hole in the surface of one of them – a hole emitting a ‘thud’ every 10.6 seconds – what they need to do seems clear. Explore the hole, and discover who or what made it. And, of course, why.
Alex, a xenobiologist still grappling with the sudden death of his wife, is sent along with three others to get as close as possible to the hole. Their struggles as they journey towards the hole is one of many parts – between each other, the harsh environment, and their own uncertainties and feelings. Chief among them is the grief and guilt felt by Alex.
Despite acting as a new story in an already-established universe, Fractal Noise stands on its own as a formidable work of science fiction and, arguably, horror. The book is perfectly understandable for those who haven’t read To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, with appendix notes for anyone wanting to learn more about the world. Similarly, while at times the story delves into the science behind the fiction, it never becomes too hard for a layperson to understand. Instead, it just serves to make the story more intriguing.
And intriguing it is. The central mystery of this hole emitting blasts of sound is fascinating in its simplicity, and an ominous atmosphere pervades the entire novel – even when nothing bad has happened yet. While the characters do feel a little flat at times, they still have interesting sides to them too, and the well-crafted atmosphere makes up for it in any case. Similar applies to the main character – a man grieving his dead wife is far from a new concept, but it’s executed fairly well and with some original twists and turns. The novel is hardly what you’d call fast paced. But for the most part it feels less ‘slow’ and more ‘ponderous’, taking the time for the dread to sink in.
The story is of grief, and of the struggle to find meaning in a universe that seems truly uncaring. It’s a story of fear and nihilism and how to cope with it all. Despite these dark subjects, the book makes for an easy and compelling read, each new turn for the worse dragging you onwards even as you know it can only end in tragedy.
Despite these dark subjects, this book finds a reason to continue moving forward. To find beauty, even in the end of everything. While the novel may not suit those readers of sci-fi looking for more fast-paced and action-packed fare, Fractal Noise is certainly worth reading for its quiet intensity and strong themes.