Aug 25, 2011

The Quantum Thief - Hannu Rajaniemi

Needing a break from the A Song of Ice and Fire marathon that I have been doing, I decided to go for something completely different. Hannu Rajaniemi's first long form work The Quantum Thief was hailed by many as the debut of 2010, and I am a sucker for good space opera, so - mistakenly thinking the book would fall in that genre - I gave it a go.

The story is set in the far future, in a posthuman solar system where most human minds have been uploaded as "gogols" in virtual environment, indistinguishable from the artificial intelligences that also roam the multiple realities of the ruling entity - the upload collective of the Sobornost. Governed by the copyclans - the trillions of copies of the Founders - the Sobornost turns every other uploaded mind into a slave gogol to serve its mysterious purpose, known as the Great Common Task.

Meanwhile, in the outer reaches of the system other societies fight to remain independent of the copyclans. The Oortians from the Oort Cloud are transhuman warriors whose society - based on Finnish culture - has adapted their manufactured bodies to zero gravity and the freedom of open space. The Zoku are another posthuman group, similar to the Sobornost, who once lost the great Protocol War with it and as a result had to hide on Mars. They are descendants of MMORPG gamers and their entire culture is shaped around the pursuing of games, achievements and leveling up. For them everyone else is a "meme zombie", one who doesn't "play".

And on Mars is the Oubliette - the last baseline human society. A walking city constantly on the run from the whirlwind of trillions of self-replicating killing machines called phoboi, the Oubliette is a place of privacy and old technology, untouched - except for the Zoku colony - by the nanotech quantum singularity that transformed the rest of the system. Its citizens follow an endless cycle of death and rebirth. Everyone carries a Watch that measures their Time as a Noble - a conscious baseline human body. Time is both a measure, and a currency, allowing one to shorten or lengthen their human life in exchange for services, goods and the right to create children. When one's Time is up, their body shuts down and is stored while their mind is temporarily uploaded into a Quiet - machines tasked with maintaining the walking city and fighting off the phoboi threat.

The Quantum Thief's main character is Jean le Flambeur - a notorious thief, alluded to have known many of the Sobornost Founders and possibly hailing from an age close to our own time. Jean has lived many lives in the many societies of the system, stolen both artifacts, ideas and minds, and committed acts that are now a legend. However, he failed in his last project, and as a result was imprisoned in the Dilemma Prison - a structure governed by the Sobornost created Archons tasked with "reprogramming" malevolent minds so they can be uploaded into the collective. But as the novel begins, Jean is saved by the Oortian warrior Mieli and her mysterious godlike benefactor. In return, he has to help them with a theft that only he is capable of, but first, he needs to find the missing pieces of his mind - pieces he hid in the Oubliette a generation ago.

I spend so much time describing the setting and story because The Quantum Thief has not a single speck of mercy for the reader. It bombards you with terminology only half of which is ever explained properly, and the rest is left to your powers of deduction. Even so (or maybe because of that?), the book is immensely rewarding. The first part of a planned trilogy, it is almost entirely set in the Oubliette, thus focusing on a single aspect of the solar system and giving the reader an in-depth view of this posthuman future where the human mind is only another piece of digital information and bodies are easy to create, replace and upgrade.

Apart from Jean and Mieli, there is a third main character - the young Oubliette freelance detective Isidore Beautrelet who solves mysteries on behalf of the Tzadikkim (Hebrew for "righteous ones"), a group of mysterious vigilantes that protect the peace of the walking city with their Zoku-based technology far more advanced than anything the Oubliette uses. Isidore has the ability to see patterns in events and make connections that nobody else could make, which makes him an invaluable part of everybody's plans, and thus - the book's fascinating plot.

And it is fascinating. The Quantum Thief moves with lightning speed, giving you just enough time to kind of orient yourself in the current situation before changing it. Yet the story doesn't feel rushed at all, just charged. Although there are only two plot lines, and the connection between them becomes apparent early on, the finale is still really neat in combining multiple elements of the story so far, and giving a very satisfying conclusion considering that this is only part one of a trilogy.

Rajaniemi's style of writing is great, without drawing attention to itself. Straight to the point, but with enough flourish not to betray the author's hardcore mathematics background (PhD in Physical Mathematics among other degrees). The Quantum Thief sports zero scientific outbursts of the variety that has completely and forever put me off hard SF writers like Stephen Baxter for example, and yet you can clearly see Rajaniemi knows what he is talking about. He is just far more interested in worldbuilding and storytelling, and he has my utmost gratitude for it.

That said, his writing style is not without its flaws. Characters aren't especially complex and their development leaves a lot to be desired in terms of change. They aren't one-dimensional, and they do change with the book's progress, but there is definitely a room for improvement in that aspect, even if it doesn't deter from the enjoyment. My more serious problem is the way information is given to the reader. Like I said, The Quantum Thief throws you in the deep water with very little interest in your ability to swim. Personally, I really love that approach, as I choose to trust the author will eventually make it all clear to me. And Rajaniemi definitely does that, but he seems to not be able to strike the balance for it. Half the time information is just too sparse for the reader to be certain of anything (I must admit to going online too look up some of what I wrote in the previous paragraphs), and the other half is given in rather clumsy infodumps. Not long ones - characters don't burst into sudden talking head mode, thank Cthulhu - but still pretty obvious, and considering that they usually describe the things we are already more or less clear on, I would say the effect is quite unnecessary.

Still, I absolutely loved that book. It is action-packed, and chock-full of ideas. I haven't even touched on the amazing concept of gevulot - the privacy protocol used in the Oubliette - or the walking city's "exomemory", the Sobornost gubernyas, the Zoku Spimescapes, or the cool weapons and other technology used in the action scenes. And the main plot - of which this novel is only the very beginning, even if it is a complete story on its own - seems to be really promising. So, in case it wasn't obvious, The Quantum Thief is a total must read. I am not sure if I would put it above the other great 2010 debut - Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl - but it's definitely among the best SF debuts I've read in a long time, and utterly worth the very little time it will take you to devour it. With a slightly easier access to the world, and a little more character development, it could have been a masterpiece. Still, I can't wait for The Fractal Prince to come out next year!


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