The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz, 448pp, £12.99
The science fiction debut of 2010 was apparently Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. Almost a year before it appeared, it was being said Gollancz had bought it based solely on a synopsis and a single chapter. Rajaniemi’s few prior fiction sales had garnered much praise – three stories published in English since 2003, two of which were picked by Gardner Dozois for his The Best Science Fiction of the Year anthologies. As a result, expectations for Rajaniemi’s debut novel were high. Even the publisher was convinced of its greatness: in the introduction to the ARC, Simon Spanton, Deputy Publishing Director at Gollancz, declared that if “this novel isn’t at least shortlisted for the Clarke I’ll eat someone else’s hat”. Sadly, it didn’t make the short-list. However, when and where Spanton will chow down on some headgear has yet to be revealed.
The problem with hype is that it sets up expectations that are rarely met. The actual quality of the novel in question often seems immaterial – in fact, there are frequently so many opinions out there, in magazines and on the Internet, declaiming greatness that it’s hard not to feel you should be just as laudatory. So… is The Quantum Thief as good as Gollancz claim? Was it the best sf debut novel of 2010? Was it one of the best sf novels of 2010?
The answer, of course, is both yes and no.
The Quantum Thief is certainly a good sf novel, and for a debut novel, it’s very polished. I don’t actually read each new sf novel as it is published, so have no real way of judging it against other sf novels published last year. Certainly the Clarke judges felt it didn’t number in the best six books of the year. But then the Clarke judges have a habit of confounding both the industry’s and sf readers’ expectations. That The Quantum Thief did not make it onto the British Science Fiction Association Award short-list is more of a surprise. BSFA members are not afraid of “difficult” novels – witness Anathem in 2008 and Yellow Blue Tibia in 2009.
Jean le Flambeur is a celebrated thief in a future solar system, but he is currently languishing in the Dilemma Prison, a virtual gaol. He is broken out by Mieli, a human from the Oort cloud, who wants le Flambeur to steal something for her. Before he can do this, however, he must recover something of his from the Martian city of Oubliette.
Meanwhile, student and detective Isidore Beautrelet is involved in solving a murder for the tzaddikim, Oubliette’s vigilantes, and the nearest it has to any formal overt authority. The murder leads Isidore into what appears to be a conspiracy which has ramifications for all of Oubliette’s citizens. In the city, people use an exomemory – which is exactly as the name suggests. Isidore learns that this has been tampered with, that Oubliette’s history is entirely fabricated, and its present laissez-faire personal-privacy-driven society is not the consequence of the Revolution. Nor was the city a tyranny before (hint: the city’s name is a big clue).
Meanwhile, le Flambeur has determined that it is his identity, or parts of it, which he needs to recover from Oubliette. Unfortunately, he hid it, and hid it well. And, it transpires, he’s not just a thief, he’s actually a far more important person than that. Also involved are the zoku, who are descended from otaku gamers, and are now copies and avatars of their uploaded personas. They are Fedorovists, engaged in the Great Common Task (i.e, Fedorov’s plan for perfecting the human race), but this does not impact on the plot of the novel.
Rajaniemi’s background – he has a doctorate in string theory, and co-founded a mathematics think-tank – is clearly the source for many of the concepts in display in The Quantum Thief (cf the book’s title). Yet, for all its cutting-edge science and maths, The Quantum Thief often reads like the novelization of an anime film. It has that strange eighteenth-century Europe-based aesthetic, the same use of magical tech, the same choppy approach to plotting and revelation. Le Flambeur’s narrative, for instance, is told in the first person, which, of course, allows Rajaniemi to feed the reader only the information le Flambeur himself knows. Occasionally, this PoV lapses and the reader is abruptly thrown into Mieli’s, or Isidore’s, third-person limited PoV. Despite large wodges of exposition, little is actually explained about the world of the story, and much has to be inferred and/or puzzled out.
Much has been made of the steep learning curve imposed on readers by the story. It’s true the plot takes a chapter or three to kick into gear. It’s equally the case that several of the novel’s concepts are hidden behind terms borrowed from other languages – such as “tzaddikim”, mentioned earlier. But neither are that much of a hurdle. Rajaniemi is no prose stylist, although his prose is much better than many of science fiction’s so-called classics. He is, however, better at describing the ideas than he is the psychology of his cast. But that’s not unusual in sf.
Some of the politics underlying the novel’s ideas do seem a little worrying. The zoku, and their “gods”, the Founders, appear to spend much of their time fighting each other. Their lives are driven by a philosophy of “optimal resource allocation”, which often seems little more than an excuse for some sort of Ultra-Randian selfishness. The secret of le Flambeur’s true identity also plays into this slightly dodgy implied political landscape.
The Quantum Thief is not a stand-alone novel, but the first in a trilogy. It is, for all its seeming strangeness, actually quite a traditional sf novel, albeit dressed up in twenty-first century clothing. Which is not to say it’s not a good read. It most likely was the debut sf novel of 2010, but not, I think, the sf novel of the year.
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