Thursday, 8 July 2010

Book Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

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"Jean le Flambeur is a post-human criminal, mind burglar, confidence artist and trickster. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his exploits are known throughout the Heterarchy - from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to steal their thoughts, to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of the Moving Cities of Mars. Except that Jean made one mistake. Now he is condemned to play endless variations of a game-theoretic riddle in the vast virtual jail of the Axelrod Archons - the Dilemma Prison - against countless copies of himself. Jean's routine of death, defection and cooperation is upset by the arrival of Mieli and her spidership, Perhonen. She offers him a chance to win back his freedom and the powers of his old self - in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed..."


I've never been one for appendices. Laborious timelines, glossaries of characters and indexes of pivotal events - they've always felt like laziness to me; desperate forget-me-nots crafted by writers either incapable or unwilling to streamline pertinent information. I can understand the place of such things in, say, part six of some epic fantasy saga, but even then I'll give them the cold shoulder. I'm of the opinion that a book should communicate all necessary knowledge in the body of its narrative. More so, in fact, in the case of the aforementioned multi-volume tomes. For my money, an author should be accommodating, both of new readers and those who've waited a period of years for the next installment of their favourite series. If not - if the body of a book isn't approachable in itself - such appendices are little better than a trick to lure in easy prey and obfuscate that novel's oversight.

Tell you what, though: all my complaints aside, had there been some sort of index, I would have gladly (and repeatedly) referred to it during the mind-boggling first third of The Quantum Thief. Finnish debut author Hannu Rajaniemi does not condescend to explain much of anything in the opening act of his first novel. Nor, indeed, are convenient infodumps forthcoming in the remainder. There is a great swathe of races to get to know - Tzaddikim, Quiet, zoku and Sobornost - not to mention a wealth of initially baffling concepts to wrap your head around, from gevulots and spimescapes to Watches and agoras. The tomorrow's world of The Quantum Thief is one in motion from the get-go; its inexorable forward motion will fluster even the most grizzled veteran of hard science fiction, and there's hardly a chance to catch your breath.

We come upon Jean le Flambeur in the Dillemma prison, facing off against himself in an infinite iteration of game-theory. The titular thief comes a cropper, the bullet of his mirror-image opponent "an ice-cream headache, burrowing into my skull... and then things stop making sense." An apparent angel comes to his aid, spiriting Jean away to her sleek spidership, Perhonen, but Mieli (mind in Finnish) has only rescued the thief to imprison him once more. Before he can even begin to understand his latest captor, however, the ship comes under attack: the Archon guards want their prisoner back. But Jean, still quick on his toes despite his years of in the "diamond donut," eats the nanomissile lodged in Perhonon's sapphire skin - of course he does! - and all is well again.

Then there's the Tzaddikim detective, Isidore Beautrelet, whose indefatigable passion for solving mysteries makes him a tolerable curiosity to his zoku partner, Pixil - that is when she's not out on a raid astride her epic mount, Cyndra, "a plump, pink-haired elf." Isidore will have a vital part to play in the Mars-shattering events that Jean and Mieli set in motion. At the moment, however, he's up to his neck in chocolate: death by chocolate, to be precise.

The curious murder of a renowned chocolatier and Isidore's Columbo-esque unravelling of the otherworldly mechanics of it represent the first real opportunity for readers to come to grips with the various peoples and ideas of The Quantum Thief. Much of the action therein takes place on the Oubliette, a moving Martian city populated by settlers who must earn back their humanity as insect-like labourers, whereupon the currency for all things is time: a trip in a spidercab, a child to call your own or food from the fabbers costs so many megaseconds. And that isn't even the half of it. Rajaniemi has crafted a rich and far-flung futurescape full of insight and invention. He doesn't so much lay it out for us whole cloth as litter the lustrous landscape with clues for readers to draw inference from.

And appendices be damned, I wouldn't have had it any other way.

What begins as a sense of bafflement takes shape over the course of The Quantum Thief as a discovery waiting to be had, a mindfield of singular experiences yours for the taking. Interludes which seem appropos of nothing to begin with gradually enmesh with the two-pronged narrative the thief and the detective share; the world, the people, the ideas, all so utterly other at first, come together like the crystalline threads of Mieli's spidership during combat: once an expansive solar web, "the scattered modules pull themselves... along their tethers and fuse together into a tight, hard cone."

Coming from an author with a PhD in string theory, it's no surprise, I suppose, that The Quantum Thief is so intelligent as to appear intimidating, and though it takes a while to orient yourself to Rajaniemi's particular rhythm, his debut comes together piece by piece in the mode of M. John Harrison's Light - and it's every bit the equal of that modern-day genre masterpiece. Beneath the science, you see, beneath the staggering speculative wonder of it all, Hannu Rajaniemi has a knack for spare, no-nonsense storytelling that approaches the poetic at times. The Quantum Thief is a revelation, in the end, and make no mistake: we have here the sci-fi debut of 2010.


The Quantum Thief
by Hannu Rajaniemi
September 2010, Gollancz

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  1. And I hate you. Been trying to get my hands on this one for months.

    Sounds every bit as excellent as promised

  2. Yes I concur with you about the need for an index. I too found the plethora of new ideas/characters etc a little confusing and suggested jotting down notes as to characeters, or re-reading on completion, in my own review of The Quantum Thief.

  3. This is a perfect review, exactly how I found myself reading the book. I read the first chapter twice, and the rest came alot easier. A new favourite to be sure.

  4. If not an index, at least a glossary. Many of the terms used are never explained (or at least, not for a long time after their introduction), leaving the reader to guess based on context if they haven't read whatever futurist / transhumanist work introduced the terms.

  5. Mr. Rajaniemi himself stated that he left the indes/glossary out on purpose to make it kind of an inside game/riddle to the reader.

  6. I found this tiresome. The characters are poorly sketched and uninteresting. I had no emotional investment in anyone. The thief is arrogant and unaffected by any of his experiences yet all must fall under his spell - even goddesses. There is no description which gives us a sense of place or detail or overall world: I understand the wish not to over-explain and to dump knowledge but one ends up simply confronted with numerous deus ex machina and no confidence in the narrative - and no suspense as you wait for the next reveal. Oh, you have to get into that strange place which has appeared out of nowhere, designed by a very powerful being? No worry, you need my realmspace sword! Not that this has been mentioned in any shape or form even as a basic concept, but that is what you need, here it is, et voila, problem solved.

    And I still have no real idea what he was sent to steal.

    Very disappointing after the many reviews. With time spent fleshing out the characters believably, drawing up the rules of a world which can be understood and felt as one reads, and providing a decent plot that turns on character or event, this novel - brimming with interesting ideas - would be wonderful. As it is, I have no desire to read the second.