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Book Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Genre: Cyberpunk, Hard SF
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition
Publication Date: May 10, 2011
ISBN-10: 0765329492
ISBN-13: 978-0765329493
Author Website: Hannu Rajaniemi

Post-Earth cyberpunk finds a new voice in Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel The Quantum Thief. Rajaniemi, a Ph. D. in quantum physics, think tank director and second language English writer, details a complex story that gets off to a rocky start but pays off big in the end.

Jean le Flambeur is the greatest thief of all time. Yet even great thieves get caught occasionally, and as the novel opens, le Flambeur is caught in a quantum Dilemma Prison. Forced to kill the other prisoners and war machines with archaic projectile guns or die and be resurrected, le Flambeur is not even sure if he actually is himself, or merely a construct. Then le Flambeur is rescued by the beautiful post-human Mieli, a member of some vague group from the far reaches of the solar system. Mieli has a job for le Flambeur, but before he can work for her, he first has to regain the memory of who he was on the Reconstruction-era Mars. Upon the vast moving city that serves as the planet’s capital, le Flambeur must rediscover his identity on a planet where time is currency, privacy is highly valued and easily obtained and the exomemory stores consciousness so that no one ever really dies. Le Flambeur and Mieli are thrust into a political quagmire which only a celebrated thief could escape.

Meanwhile, Mars-born architecture student turned private detective Isidore Beautrelet is called in to investigate the death of a chocolatier and soon becomes embroiled in a shadow conspiracy that involves vigilantes, ancient secrets, a highly evolved MMORPG guild and an arch-criminal known as le Flambeur.

At first, I found The Quantum Thief difficult to understand. The opening chapters of the story play mind games with you, using a lot of real-or-is-it sort of questions to leave the reader going huh? The prison of le Flambeur is designed by the Archons – an intelligent group of machines – to mess with your head. However, it is worth getting past the vagaries of the first few pages to the portion where le Flambeur leaves the prison, as the story settles down into a more traditional (though still mind-stretching) narrative.

This is not to say that Rajaniemi‘s book is in any way “traditional” (e.g. dull, trope-filled, unoriginal). It is a complexly interwoven story where even minor details are significant – and there are many details – at Rajaniemi rarely pauses to explain his science or world. That is actually one of its great strengths. Rajaniemi might introduce a concept such as “gevulot” (a Hebrew term for “borders”) but allow explanation to unfold through the actions and conversations of the characters. Rajaniemi may use a term like gevulot over and over again but not explain it clearly until much later in the book.

It is a pretty good way to build a world that adds another layer of mystery to an already mysterious story, and prevents any excessive infodumping. Some readers will hate this of course, as it means that they may find themselves often confused (as I was) especially early on in the novel. However, I enjoyed the sense of mystique and otherness that Rajaniemi’s expectation of reader knowledge gave to the novel. The story does not include a glossary of terms (though one can be found online) perhaps to aid in this very thing.

If the story fails, it is in its lack of end goal or perceived motivations of the characters. Beautrelet’s is fairly evident, as it is the thrill of the chase for him – but even that is limited in its compulsion, especially in light of what he encounters. Le Flambeur’s motivation is shrouded in mystery. The simple fact of having his body controlled by Mieli isn’t enough, and following that train of motivation only leads to the vague reasons for Mieli to rescue le Flambeur in the first place and the unclear desires of those who direct her. Being a thief holds some sway in motivating the novel, but even the desire to learn about his past life on Mars is not a forceful enough. This lack of clear character goals is designed and intended by the author, but it kept me from getting connected to the characters on any more than a surface level.

As a cyberpunk style novel, the story is full of action-adventure. As one might expect from a story about an arch-criminal thief, there is no lack of prowling about. One particularly great scene is when le Flambeur and Mieli encounter the Sobornost and Mieli is forced to battle a little girl whose body is inhabited by a group mind. When Mieli breaks out her post-human enhancements the story gets exciting and violent. However, the action is more like Thomas Crown Affair than Bourne Identity. The story is a mix of these really, especially when you add in the whole metacognition/exomemory/vigilante/MMORPG element.

For a Finnish writer writing in a second language, Rajaniemi has excellent facility with the vocabulary and grammar. Perhaps living in Scotland has helped, but Rajaniemi’s non-native English is erudite, clear, if sometimes a bit simplistic (subject-verb, subject-verb). I found that the grammatical construction aided the pacing and allowed Rajaniemi to make some of the more complex concepts more accessible to the scientifically challenged.

The story is complete if you leave off reading the final chapter. So it is possible to get a taste of Rajaniemi without feeling like you have to invest entirely in the three book trilogy of which The Quantum Thief is the first. But if you do read the final chapter, you will note that Mars was just the beginning of le Flambeur’s adventure.

I like The Quantum Thief but don’t love it. Cyberpunk has never been a preferred milieu of mine, but if I were going to recommend a book in that subgenre, this would certainly be the preferred choice. If you like novels with complex, far-future, scientifically based societies with a cyberpunk edge; mysterious, slowly unfolding characters; and an action based plot then The Quantum Thief is the book for you.