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Book Review: The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi

Lupin meets the Matrix.


The Quantum Thief

Tor, 2010, 336 pages



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 stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of Mars. Now he’s confined inside the Dilemma Prison, where every day he has to get up and kill himself before his other self can kill him. Rescued by the mysterious Mieli and her flirtatious spacecraft, Jean is taken to the Oubliette, the Moving City of Mars, where time is currency, memories are treasures, and a moon-turned-singularity lights the night.

What Mieli offers is the chance to win back his freedom and the powers of his old self—in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed. As Jean undertakes a series of capers on behalf of Mieli and her mysterious masters, elsewhere in the Oubliette, investigator Isidore Beautrelet is called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier, and finds himself on the trail of an arch-criminal, a man named le Flambeur...

The Quantum Thief is a crazy joyride through the solar system several centuries hence, a world of marching cities, ubiquitous public-key encryption, people communicating by sharing memories, and a race of hyper-advanced humans who originated as MMORPG guild members. But for all its wonders, it is also a story powered by very human motives of betrayal, revenge, and jealousy. It is a stunning debut.




This is a debut novel that is getting rave reviews from hard SF fans, and I can see why: it's got a twisty, multi-threaded plot woven into some really far-out worldbuilding. The Quantum Thief is a little bit space opera and a little bit cyberpunk but not really either; it's a post-human society with mind-transfers and singularities and Artificial Intelligences and moving cities on Mars and post-scarcity economies where humans still manage to create gaps between the haves and the have-nots.

This is also a very jargon-heavy novel, and there is no glossary. In the first few chapters, you will be subjected to Gevulots, Exomemory, Quptlink, Gogols, Tzaddikim, Sobornost, and many other terms which are explained only by way of context. Hannu Rajaniemi is very determined to "Show, don't tell," and he doesn't tell you much of anything. If you're an attentive reader and you enjoy figuring out what's going on in an alien setting as you go along, you will probably love this book. If not, you may find it rather frustrating.

There are three main characters in The Quantum Thief. The first is Jean le Flambeur, the most infamous thief, conman, and all-around dirty rotten scoundrel in the solar system. In chapter one, he is broken out of a Matrix-like Neptunian prison in which he is forced to play infinite variations of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

He is freed by the second main character, Mieli, who is a winged warrior from the Oort cloud. Mieli has a sentient ship named Perhonen; Perhonen is actually more interesting than Mieli. Mieli serves a powerful being who wants Jean freed so he can retrieve some of his memories from the Martian city known as the Oubliette.

The third main character is Isidore Beautrelet, an art student who "moonlights" as a detective and aspires to become one of the superhuman Tzaddikim. Isidore Beautrelet's story begins with the murder of a chocolatier, which he solves much more easily than he resolves his relationship difficulties with his girlfriend, a member of a "Zoku colony" of post-human warriors descended from MMORPG guilds.

You may be getting the idea now that this is a complicated book, full of easter eggs and sly winks referencing everything from pop culture to Finnish mythology. It is, and it's also a rip-roaring sci-fi adventure, once you get past the many layers of jargon and the elaborate worldbuilding. For the first half of the book, you've got a heist story with mild romantic tension between Jean le Flambeur (who is as incorrigibly flirtatious as he is untrustworthy) and Mieli (who is mostly humorless and thinks thieves are scum) alternating with Isidore Beautrelet, whose detective work eventually puts him on the trail of the infamous thief.

I would compare Hannu Rajaniemi to Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, and Dan Simmons. His characters, while vivid and interesting, never quite made me care about them, though they are less cold and and awkward than Stross's and Reynolds's.



Verdict: The Quantum Thief is kind of like an anime from the 24th century, full of wildly imaginative technology, stunning settings, and a little more glitz and chrome and sensawunda than character development. The plotting is as intricate as the worldbuilding, but it does not forgive the reader who skims or blinks. But seriously, "Lupin meets the Matrix" about sums it up.




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Tags: books, reviews, science fiction
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