The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi

After the release of The Quantum Thief in 2010 I wrote a gushing, ten-out-of-ten review. Its sequel – The Fractal Prince – is already on the market and I hope to subject it to blogoscopy soon. As a segue into that I decided to reread/rereview the first book, Rajaniemi’s devilishly good debut.

I have to admit my first review was a bit too ecstatic. The book is a real gem, it’s certainly among the best SF works I have read in the last years. But it isn’t a ten-out-of-ten and it’s not without shortcomings. That said, the book left me almost as hooked and craving for more as it did the first time.

Jean le Flambeur was once the god of thieves. He stole moons and snatched mega mind factories out of the sun. He lived the life. He got caught. When Mieli – a female warrior from the far Oort – and the butterfly ship she sang into existence rescue him from his hellish prison, Jean has no choice but to return the favor. Which brings the three of them to Mars and the Oubliette, a city forever traversing the red planet’s deserts, carried on the shoulders of mechanical Atlases. It is a peculiar place, with its Noble citizens, counting down their Time stored in quantum watches, until it runs out and they are called to spend time as Queit machine servants, tending the city and warding off the dreaded Phoboi. Until their new resurrection. Jean has no idea what he is looking for, only that he has hidden it well from himself. He is aware of neither who Mieli’s employer is, nor of the Oortian’s own reasons for serving it. On top of that, power struggles on Mars soon prove to be a jagged and carefully concealed iceberg. Naturally, Jean is thrilled.

TQT is a hybrid breed. Its DNA is steeped in different genres, deftly interleaved to make for a whizzing fast read. The book is part heist-story, part crime fiction, with sprinklings of space opera, cyberpunk, novel of manners, and with a spine of post human worldbuilding running throughout. It is absolutely aware of its hybridity and delights in it, even refers to it on a regular basis:

 “Fighting a cabal of planetary mind-controlling masterminds with a group of masked vigilantes – that’s what life should be all about.”

and

 “But as prisons go, it is a lot better than the last one: a beautiful woman, secrets and a good meal, and a sea of ships carrying us to adventure.”

Rajaniemi works well with the genre schemas he has thrown in the mix, though he never takes them to a full-blown stage; the novel is simply too fast and relies more on immersion in worldbuilding than in narrative intricacies. Nevertheless, Rajaniemi sketches out with competence the different generic maps through which the characters move, and thus provides a sturdy narrative scaffolding to support his richly-layered universe.

Competence is indeed one of the Finnish writer’s most powerful weapons. Whatever part of tQT you are at, it reads like it’s the real thing. I don’t have degrees in mathematical physics like Rajaniemi, and with my limited popular science knowledge I can’t really judge the level of plausibility of particle physics technologies in the novel. Thanks to that same limited knowledge, however, I can definitely judge them to be competently-presented and fully-believable. It is an old trick any SF writer worth their salt knows well: invoke a discourse, show the reader that you know its ropes, convince her to defer to its authority. It’s an economical way of mining readerly suspension of disbelief. Of course, you need to know the relevant ropes really well, or at least know enough to feign proficiency.

Well Rajaniemi obviously knows his way around the theoretical physics department, but that doesn’t exhaust his repertoire. Cognitive science and embodied cognition, for example, are fields that feature quite heavily in the book as a worldbuilding element. Of those I have more than a passing knowledge and have to say that he has done a marvelous job there. The key to success is not simply to write things that make sense, it’s also to pick the right words and insert them in the textual slots where their impact will be maximized. It’s not necessary to explain the whole mechanics of a fictional world for the reader to believe in it, but it’s absolutely crucial to show that it’s there and to demonstrate its coherence and functionality.

TQT does precisely that, no matter whether it focuses on quantum mechanics, mind-machine interface, criminal undertakings or quasi-Victorian socialites. There is a sense of rapidly accumulating substance to this world – the implied actuality of its mechanics – and it gives Rajaniemi plenty of elbow space to test the limits of the readers’ willingness to stretch the envelope. But before jumping into the worldbuilding itself I want to mention a small disappointment I had with my second reading. Although the brisk tempo was quite enjoyable, I now realize that characterization is tQT’s weakest spot and the hectic pace of the plot is probably to blame.

Rajaniemi does indicate that he is competent at character construction and development, as well. All of the characters in tQT are more than adequate, but that is so mostly because they interact well with the plot and move in sync with the various narrative sub-frameworks. We get glimpses of their psychological depths here and there and those are definitely well-written and interesting. But there is only so much you can achieve within 300 pages packed with all kinds of super ambitious stuff. Which is a shame because tQT‘s story would be extremely conducive to complex and mind-bending character dynamics. Maurice Leblank meets Marcel Proust, or some such sort of posh silliness.

“Ideas are cheap, it’s all in the execution,” says Jean le Flambeur. Indeed, Hannu Rajaniemi must have access to a vast and secret network of idea bazaars. He has summoned a world that feels too huge and impossible to be fictive. That Solar System of the future is both horrible and wondrous; the opposing affective states it triggers like a pendulum pour back from the reader and into the text, suffusing it with bittersweet melancholy for a world that will never be.

In that world half the system is ruled by the Sobornost – a collectivist movement sworn to the Great Task of uploading each and every human mind to digital carriers. The Sobornost and its ruling Founding Fathers have the nasty habit of turning human minds into gogols (just one of the many literary references), specialized systems adept at solving various problems that traditional AIs find challenging. The Sobornost is never unequivocally painted as the dark side, and while there is an unmistakable distopic whiff  about it, it is also a major source of futuristic miracles: guberniyas sucking power directly from the sun, planet-eating singularities and dragons!

Or take the enemy of the Sobornost – the zoku with their gaming clans descended from MMORPG guilds on Earth. The zoku have mastered quantum technologies and use them to various ends, like instant communication and the creation of imagined worlds. They have effectively blended the real and the fictional, taking to the extreme Clarke’s law of magic and sufficiently advanced technology. And yet – or maybe precisely because of that – they remain true to their gamers’ mentality, fundamentally childlike in many respects and regarding most humans as “meme-zombies”. Probably the most hilarious scene in the novel includes a bunch of zokus engaged in old school LARP.

Wonders abound in tQT, and yet in the end it remains more concerned with core human values and problems rather than post human quandaries. The locus of the action – the Oubliette – is a topos eminently well-suited to provide a background to that kind of speculative writing. This Martian society, with its elaborate system of privacy veils, or gevulot, and just as intricate economy based on Time, is fundamentally human, from its greatest achievements to its pettiest shortcomings and most fatal self-delusions. “My body is still locked in its human state,” to quote once again the trickster protagonist of the book. It’s a sentence that makes complete sense in context, and serves as an apt description of the Oubliette as well. And as with all matters human there is ache too, after lost dreams and missed opportunities:

 “You already did your worst. You stole what could have been. From me and from yourself. And you can never have it back.”

Rajaniemi’s choice to introduce us to his world through such a bizarre and yet recognizably human lens is right on the mark. The many references and neologisms imported from various cultures, together with the familiar narratives structuring the story, further strengthen the sense that post humanity is rather just a point along the spectrum of human experience. I expect that The Fractal Prince will introduce more counterarguments to that hypothesis and entangle the geometry of the topic to a deliciously perverse state.

Clearly I am in awe of Hannu Rajaniemi. TQT projects the vivid impression that the Finnish writer/scientist/entrepreneur has the panache and talent to revolutionize the genre. Blending hard and soft science, threading together multiple narrative structures, damn smart and funny at once, it is a rare kind of book. If Rajaniemi refines his characterization skills and lets narrative voice imbue more life into his world, he can do wonders. The occasional thinness of the characters is tQT‘s Achilles tendon, I think. It not only erodes part of its enormous potential but also leads to occasional linguistic platitudes. The quality of writing, however, is remarkably high for most of the time and I really hope it keeps getting better with each new book. The Fractal Prince, here I come!

8.5/10

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2 comments on “The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi

  1. Thank you so much – not only have you reviewed, but you have re-reviewed this book and that is masterly all in itself. This is the review that has made me buy the book!

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