Book Review 2011 #8: The Quantum Thief

Another ARC of a debut novelist, but this time, its SF…

The Quantum Thief Review
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
“Time is what we make of it; relative, absolute, finite, infinite. I choose to let this moment last forever so that when I toil to clean your sewers and protect you from phoboi and carry your city on my back – I can remember what it is like to have such friends.”
–Christian Unruh at his carpe diem party.
Hannu Rajaniemi and his debut novel The Quantum Thief are something I’ve heard about for a while, mainly through the agency of the Coode Street Podcast, the enthusiasm Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe have for this novel infectious. I was extremely fortunate to get a chance at reading an ARC of the book.
A welcome letter from editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden evokes Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge and Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber in trying to introduce the book. Given my high regard for all three gentlemen, you might imagine that this has colored my perceptions of the book, and you would be right. Mr. Rajaniemi has a day job running a think tank based on AI and advanced mathematics, and has a doctorate in String Theory.
It should surprise no one, then, that the world of the Quantum Thief is a high concept, high jargon post-Singularity world.
Jean Le Flambeur, an imprisoned thief undergoing an endless series of rounds of Prisoner’s Dilemma, is rescued by Mieli, an agent of a mysterious post-Singularity being. From there, the pair travel to Mars to find one of Le Flambeur’s most prized and valuable possessions: His lost memory.
In the meantime, Isidore Beautrelet, citizen of the Oubilette, the moving city of Mars, has a tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend, and his efforts at playing detective have brought him to the attention of one of the most powerful men on Mars. Unruh is a man who is worried about the announced arrival of a master thief. A thief named Jean Le Flambeur.
Mix in post-Singularity technology and a plot that barely pauses for breath, and blend on “high”, and you will get The Quantum Thief. Rajaniemi is being touted as the Next Big Thing in science fiction (the back cover of this ARC calls it “The strongest SF debut in years”) , and judging from this first book, he is making a very good, but not perfect, start.
Post-Singularity worlds and books are very tricky things. Be it Charles Stross, Walter Jon Williams, Vernor Vinge, John C. Wright, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Greg Egan, Karl Schroeder or Hannu Rajaniemi, making a book that effectively captures the world that is beyond by definition an indescribable point in technology and history is difficult, at best. And worse, there is the death problem. When you have a world where death’s sting strikes with far less strength, how do you generate stakes and conflicts that actually mean something? In a world where backups of people or other technologies make death far less fearsome, how do you deal with that lack of a final threat to a character’s sovereignty and agency?
In the book, Rajaniemi deals with the Post-Singularity problem by making no compromises, and precious little infodumping. He chucks the reader into the deep-end and expects them to sink or swim, trusting them to get it, or not. I think he is only partially successful in this approach. Lots of jargon and terms get tossed around, and it requires an attentive and active reader to really make good headway. And I would not dream that any reader who hasn’t read at least one or two novels by the gentlemen I listed earlier should even try to tackle this book. Rajaniemi loves his technology and science, although I wonder if he realizes that not every reader who comes across references to, say, WIMPS in the text are going to realize he is talking about Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, in current day physics a proposed component in of dark matter. A glossary at the back of this book would have been extremely useful.
As far as the death problem, Rajaniemi deals with this by simply allowing for a stratification of society and its individuals. In the Oubilette, there is no immortality, Time is a currency and when your time is up, if you are a citizen, you spend a period as a servant class. (Visitors merely are forced to leave). So, the threat of death, real death, still exists in the post-Singularity universe he has created.
For all of the technology and jargon, there is an almost surprising amount of character focus in the book. The evolving interactions between Le Flambeur, Mieli, her ship and the characters they meet on Mars were touching, and real. And Perhonen, Mieli’s ship, is a distinct character in her own right. With two strong female characters flanking Jean, Rajaniemi easily passes the Bechdel test.
I have to admit, on a personal note, that perhaps Mr. Hayden’s letter made me see the references, and perhaps they aren’t even there, but I was vastly amused that Le Flambeur’s outfit, once he has a chance to dress properly, are the black and silver colors of Prince Corwin of Amber. He, too, was a character who did not know all that he was, and was in a sense imprisoned, too…And that nine specific individuals play a large part in Le Flambeur’s scheme.
There are two sequels planned, and while the book’s narrative does end at a closing point for the main characters, there is a coda of sorts that suggests the source and vector of conflict for the next book. As I have said above, this high octane post-singularity fiction is not 100% successful, but I suppose the ultimate question is: Do I want to read more of Flambeur, Mieli, and beyond?
The answer to that is a resounding yes. Welcome, Mr. Rajaniemi, to the science fiction pool. I hope you will stay a while and write some more interesting books set in this world. But come next book, please give us poor pre-Singularity intelligences a glossary. Please?