The Quantum Thief
Tor, 2011 (orig. Gollancz, 2010)
The Quantum Thief opens with the thief Jean le Flambeur trapped inside a prison, his personality fractured into its component parts and forced to endlessly take part in a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. It isn’t long before he released by a beautiful woman. Of course that freedom comes at a price. He has a job to do but in order to do it he needs to recover the memories he stashed on Mars. What follows is a twisting tale that offers a strong foundation of classic thriller/mystery fare wrapped in the guise of a society full of technological wonders that we can barely imagine. It is on the one hand a personal journey (for multiple character) but one that hints at depths far deeper than our hapless thief can comprehend. For all that the one thing I wish that The Quantum Thief really had is a glossary. Now, I read an advanced copy of the US edition so I have no idea if the final edition will have one but debut author Hannu Rajaniemi throws a lot of new words out there with only contextual information present in order to grasp meaning. It is a level that perhaps eclipses even Gene Wolfe whose Book of the New Sun had similar tendencies to introduce words with little external context for understanding. The helpful wikipedia entry Glossary of Terms in the Quantum Thief is useful, though a part of me wants to recommend a “pure” reading experience.
I find it difficult to judge whether or not The Quantum Thief is hard science fiction or not (not that I have to but it did occur to me while reading). On the one hand, despite the obfuscation by amalgamated and invented naming, many of the concepts used to enhance the world are extrapolations of familiar concepts. Items like q-dots (quantum dots) are things that exist today while thinks like the beanstalk elevator (space elevator) are concepts that have been discussed in real life. Where my problem with classifying The Quantum Thief as hard science fiction is that the focus is less on the science and more on the action and characters. Indeed, a change in setting and the removal of said technologies and it is easy to envision the core plot of The Quantum Thief being equally plausible on our own world and in our own time. While individuals more well-versed in science might be able to point out parts of this novel and draw direct correlations to current (or bleeding edge) theories (individuals like the author) to the average reader (like this reviewer) can fall back into the safety net of Clarke’s Third Law with little trouble.
There is a lot going on beneath the surface of The Quantum Thief, things left unsaid or unexplained that reveal a deeper longer game for some characters. That game is never completely exposed but it is there seething beneath the surface. Flambeur, is a fascinating character who on the one hand appears to be the thrill-seeking thief that he is but things said reveal a deeper (potentially darker) past and his motivations beyond the high that larceny provides remain deeply shrouded. His handler Mieli is of similar ilk. On the one hand a noble warrior in service to a godlike person (the pellegrini, one of the mysterious members of the Sobornost, who are ancient gogols/post-humans, or advanced artificial intelligences, I was never certain) on the other willing to betray her own ideals in the service of her god. There is a sort of classic Sherlockian detective type in Isidore Beautrelet an architecture student on Mars who moonlights as a detective and while his tale does not appear to be related to that of Flambeur I found his missteps with his Zoku girlfriend Pixel entertaining and there was a straightforwardness to his manner that made Isidore quiet endearing.
Rajaniemi introduces two minor but fascinating groups on Mars. There are the tzaddik, superhero-like revolutionaries who used advanced off-world technologies to combat a shadowy threat. All of the tzaddik bear suitably dramatic names and have equally dramatic appearances. There are also the zoku a sort of post-human MMORPG/LAN-party influenced society that are perhaps my favorite little jibe a pop-culture in the whole novel. Both groups aren’t quite central to the story but both caught my imagination and I think both groups would make excellent centerpieces for some short-fiction. Of course the complex society of the Oubliette, the moving city of Mars, is a character in its own right. The complex system of time and life as a sort of currency combined with the sharing of memory make for a fascinating study in how society might evolve. Populated by characters like the very old-school Isidore or the silver-mask wearing cane-wielding tzaddik called the Gentleman and I got an almost steampunk vibe from the place.
While The Quantum Thief tells a fast paced and entertaining story it leaves little explained about the big picture. Indeed, while Flambeur was freed to help with a heist, the heist in The Quantum Thief is a side-trek, a means to recover Flambeur’s missing memories and thus enable him to get the job done. For all it’s actions and what amounts to a intensely personal story Rajaniemi does a fantastic job of slowly trickling out hints at a larger picture. While I often spent my time with The Quantum Thief awash in confusion it was most often a confusion itself bathed in a sense of wonder at the strange world and technology of Flambeur’s future. The final pages of the novel are a visual smorgasbord, managing to introduce new concepts and ideas in a novel already rife with them and managing to scratch the bare surface of the threat represented by the Sobornost. While I’m sure it will be a while before we next see Jean le Flambeur I’m certain that I’ll be there when we do. The Quantum Thief hits US booksellers on May 10, 2011.