Pocket Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief
Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz (UK), 2010

If you’re unfamiliar with terms such as zocu, Tzaddikim, Sobornost, gevulots, spimescapes, and Oubliette, then commit them to memory now. Once Hannu Rajaniemi’s first novel crosses the Atlantic next year, it will only be a matter of time before these brilliant concepts become permanently embedded in contemporary culture. Released this past September in the UK, amid rave reviews by the genre’s old school masters and most hardcore fans, The Quantum Thief is destined to join the small and finicky collection of masterpiece Hard Science Fiction as its next classic.

Rajaniemi, a 32-year-old Finnish born, Glasgow raised physics/math whiz (presently working on a PhD in string theory), first made news in the literary world in 2009 when a single chapter of his manuscript secured a lucrative three-book deal. Early reader buzz surfaced in June, preceding the book’s fall release. But coming from a beleaguered industry known for unsubstantiated hyperbole, and considering its niche market (Hard SF), expectations weren’t great. Since its publication, however, word of mouth is traveling like wildfire. Rather than waiting for its May 2011 U.S. release, I ordered a UK copy so I could see for myself what all the fuss was about. And after turning the last page of this challenging, immensely satisfying read, I’m still trying to come to grips with the fact that this is a first novel. Fiction lovers of America are in for a real treat. Readers who aren’t customarily fans of Hard SF might find the early going daunting, but the hearty souls who stick it out will be richly rewarded.

On the surface, The Quantum Thief is a futuristic heist/detective novel, but that’s a lazy, superficial description. There’s an uncommon, far-reaching imagination at work here which, at times, borders the prophetic. Thought-provoking themes about memory, identity, privacy, free will, and humanity are disguised by intelligent world-building, futuristic gadgetry, and an exciting, twisting plot.

Jean Le Flambeur is a quantum physics magician, intergalactic master thief and con man. When we first meet him, he’s serving a Dante-esque term in the Dilemma Prison. After his brain was copied and uploaded, and his memory stolen, he was sentenced to a life of perpetual duels with endless iterations of his human body. Years go by, and just as his will is about to be compromised he’s rescued by the mysterious Meili in a daring jailbreak. No sooner are they safely aboard Mieli’s smart-alecky pirate ship when they are attacked by the Archons, who want Le Flambeur back. Another breathless escape ensues, but Jean is anything but free—Mieli is under contract to deliver Le Flambeur and his skills to her employer. They need him to pull off one final heist. However, first he has to go back to Mars, and the floating society of Oubliettes, to steal back his memory.

Historically the Oubliette built their constantly moving, platform-raised world above Mars as an Old Earth alternative. An early revolution against the universal practice of node-implanted humans results in a complex societal compromise of gevulot: a virtual filter which enables people to control the level of invasiveness and protects their exomemories. But the tradeoff is dire. Among technology where “true death” no longer exists (minds are uploaded, only bodies expire), expiration dates are dictated by a currency of Time. Purchases of everyday materialistic objects, food, land, and children are done with megaseconds. Every citizen wears a watch which keeps track of their dwindling Time, and when people exhaust their wealth, the grim-reapers, known as The Ressurection Men, collect the expired bodies for The Quiet. After the minds are uploaded and copied, they are downloaded to worker bee-like machines. The Quiet are the Oubliette’s mute support force, ambulance crews, security guards, construction workers, garbage collectors, and the like. Some earn their way back, and have their minds and memories transplanted back to human bodies, but for most it’s an end to life as they know it. Jarring scenarios of Time Beggars at the plaza on Persistent Avenue, the processing of The Quiet underneath the city, and an especially poignant scene of a son visiting his Quiet father effectively give testimony to the horrific compromise made for the-ever elusive privacy.

Le Flambeur must infiltrate the Oubliette, locate and steal back his memory, make amends with a former love, evade a suspicious, Holmsian detective, win over the tzaddiks (a rebellious group of wizard-like, former Quiet) and the zoku (a psychedelic society of virtual game players), repay his debt to Mieli, and fight for his freedom and redemption. Nothing is at it appears, and for those diligent enough to make it through the first, challenging chapters—Ranjaniemi smartly does not infodump, nor does he provide a glossary—try to bear in mind that all of the book’s terminology is either allusive or referential. Nothing is made up doublespeak. The Quantum Thief builds to a crescendo of reveals that elevate both the story and its themes.

Who is the shadowy Gentleman who watches over the detective? What possible future can the detective have with his zocu lover Pixil? Why does Oubliette’s millenniaire choose to give away his Time and join the Quiet? What does Mieli’s employer really want from Le Flambeur, and who is that employer? Why do the Oubliette accept their fate? Is another Revolution possible?

Rajaniemi’s novel is destined to be a hit and a major award winner. Mark your calendars: U.S. publication date is May, 2011. For those who can’t wait until next Spring, click on over to The Book Depository (out of stock now, but will be available November 10).

“If you dropped Greg Egan’s hard physics chops into a rebooted Finnish version of Al Reynolds with the writing talent of a Ted Chiang you’d begin to get a rough approximation of the scale of his talent. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I read it. Hard to admit, but I think he’s better at this stuff than I am. And The Quantum Thief is the best first SF novel I’ve read in many years”
—Charles Stross

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3 Comments to Pocket Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

  1. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    October 28, 2010 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    MMMMmmmmm, hard science fiction. Thanks, Pat.

  2. October 30, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Dang it, Pat, you made me break my book-buying moratorium!

  3. PatD's Gravatar PatD
    October 30, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Heh, Sue. Then my work here is done.

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