Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Published: Gollancz (2010), Tor (2011)
Series: Planned as the first book in a trilogy

The Book:

Jean le Flambeur gets up in the morning and has to kill himself before his other self can kill him first. Just another day in the Dilemma Prison. Rescued by the mysterious Mieli and her flirtatious spacecraft, Jean is taken to the Oubliette, the Moving City of Mars, where time is a currency, memories are treasures, and a moon-turned-singularity lights the night. Meanwhile, investigator Isidore Beautrelet, called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier, finds himself on the trail of an arch-criminal, a man named le Flambeur....

Indeed, in his many lives, the entity called Jean le Flambeur has been a thief, a confidence artist, a posthuman mind-burgler, and more. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his deeds 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. In his last exploit, he managed the supreme feat of hiding the truth about himself from the one person in the solar system hardest to hide from: himself. Now he has the chance to regain himself in all his power—in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed.”

The Quantum Thief  is Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel, and it is slated to be the first of a trilogy. I read on Wikipedia that Rajaniemi has said that he had “come up with an outline that had every single idea I could cram into it, because I wanted to be worthy of what had happened," and that outline became the trilogy that opens with The Quantum Thief.  I don’t think he was exaggerating—there are so many creative ideas crammed into just this first novel that they threaten to overwhelm the book.

My Thoughts:
First of all, The Quantum Thief is most certainly not an entry-level science fiction novel.  Rajaniemi fills it will many interesting new ideas, but he also leans on many familiar science fiction concepts (such as mind-uploading).  There’s little description of the more common concepts, but Rajaniemi eventually includes explanations for many of the more original ideas.  The wealth of ideas and creativity was fascinating, but it could also be a little overwhelming at times.  In the beginning of the novel, especially, I felt a little lost by the many unfamiliar terms that were being tossed around.  Unlike many novels with their own vocabulary, the words in The Quantum Thief also often had no quickly recognizable (to an English speaker) linguistic roots to give hints to their meaning (What is gevulot?  What is a gogol?  What is a tzadik?).  Most important terms are eventually explained, but waiting for everything to make sense does require some patience.
Of all the interesting concepts presented in the novel, my favorite parts concerned the society of the Oubliette and the zoku.  The Oubliette had a really original take on functional immortality, mimicking cycles of life by alternating periods of consciousness as a human and as a robot servant of the community.  Oubliette society also has an obsession with levels of privacy, to the extent that the residents actually have a ‘privacy sense’.  The implementation of their privacy measures seems kind of like an extreme extrapolation of social network privacy settings applied to actual consciousness, memories and physical experience.  The zoku clans are based explicitly on gaming communities that survived the period of mind uploading.  From the vocabulary, game mechanics and general structure, I would say it is based explicitly on the MMORPG subculture.  It was fun to see something so familiar in the story, but I highly doubt that this specific kind of MMORPG subculture will last that long. 
Portraying the world of The Quantum Thief seems to be the main focus of the novel, and the plot and characters seemed a little less developed. I spent a lot of time figuring out what exactly was going on, and that’s also a pretty accurate, though simplified, description of the plot.  The story is told through three viewpoint characters, Jean le Flambeur, Isidore Beautrelet, and Mieli.  Flambeur, a first-person narrator, is trying to figure out who he is, and what Mieli and her mysterious backer want from him. Isidore, a third-person narrator, is trying to figure out what Flambeur has planned. Mieli, the Oortian woman who broke Flambeur out of prison, spends most of her time trying to keep up with Flambeur.   I liked the characters, but I think that a lack of information about their personal lives and motivations left me feeling a little detached from them.  Even so, the story, world, and characters were more than exciting enough to keep me interested, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Rajaniemi will go from here.
My Rating: 4/5
The Quantum Thief works well as a standalone novel, but there is still clearly plenty of story and information left for the rest of the trilogy to cover.  In terms of cool concepts and ideas, this is one of the more creative science fiction novels I’ve read in a while.  However, the sheer amount of new information thrown at the reader, along with my sense of detachment from the three narrators, resulted in an occasional feeling of incoherence.  I think that The Quantum Thief is a novel best approached with at least some familiarity with a variety of concepts familiar in science fiction, and a willingness to read through confusing sections in trust that explanations will eventually be forthcoming.


  1. I know this isn't going to be an easy read for me, but it's one I've had my eye on for a while. and it just looks darn cool!

    tzadik - a rightous/good person? or have I got the wrong root word?

  2. If you end up reading it, I hope you like it! I thought it was a little frustrating at times, but ultimately worth the effort.

    'Tzadik' has a specific meaning in Oubliette society, but I think that's the right root word. :)

  3. I enjoyed this book immensely, but I agree with you Allie that you have to be pretty familiar with a lot of concepts from SF like quantum entanglement, mind uploading, and the general craziness of post singular human/machine hybrid. He does cram a whole lot of stuff in there, enough for two novels at least by the standards of a lesser writer, but there are moments where the prose is so good that it offsets the overload. I also agree that the story could have let us in more on the characters and their back-stories, as it is we are just kind of along for the ride, but the book was so intriguing in its other aspects I didn't mind as much. Still, I'm pumped for the Fractal Prince, the sequel, which won't be out until Fall 2012. Too long to wait! Thanks for the review, I was eager to see what you would make of the book!

  4. Thanks for your comment! I actually read your review after I had bought the book, but before I'd had a chance to read it. I think being forewarned about the extreme 'show, don't tell' attitude of the first part of the book made me more willing to trust that Rajaniemi knew what he was doing. So, thanks for your review as well, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the novel!

    I'm hoping we're going to get more information on the characters (particularly Mieli) in the next two novels. I can't wait to read the Fractal Prince, too!

  5. I assumed gogol was derived from Nikolai Gogol, author of "Dead Souls," which was a term used occasionally for the uploaded minds that "gogols" referred to. All the terms probably have some sort of traceable etymology, and it makes sense that these concepts would be represented by terminology that hasn't been invented yet...

  6. Thanks for your comment! I didn't mean to imply that the terms had no traceable etymology, just that many of them may not be immediately obvious, depending on the reader's prior knowledge. I agree that it makes sense for Rajaniemi to use new terminology. I liked how thorough he was in creating the vocabulary for his world, even if it did take me a little while to get used to it. :)