Fiction Reviews

The Quantum Thief

(2010) Hannu Rajaniemi, Gollancz, £12.99, trdpbk, 448pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08888-7


It is the future centuries from now and Jean le Flambeur is a thief who is being held in a (space) prison for his crimes. Or to be more precise, having been incarcerated, there are now many copies of himself in prison with each being forced to play Prisoners' Dilemma with each other, and here the cooperation reward is not just shooting the other but with the big being prize to shoot the other without getting shot back. It is all supposedly part of his rehabilitation. It is in the midst of one such game that he (or a version of himself) is sprung from jail by Meli and her sentient ship Perhonen who originally came from the Oort cloud. She wants Jean's help to steal something. Of course he owes her his freedom, and besides if he does not help she will kill him. And so off to Mars they go. Meanwhile on Mars a detective (an old fashioned concept) is wrapping up a murder case…

The future portrayed is what in Vernor Vinge terms might be described as post-singularity and humans have uplifted themselves into a Greg Egan type far future (see Diaspora, Incandescence or Schild's Ladder). Much of the novel's narrative takes place on Mars in the Moving City of the Obliette that wanders the Martian surface terra-forming as it goes. The city's inhabitants spend part of their time 'alive' as humans spending temporal credit they earn from their labours, and the rest of their time downloaded as 'Quiet' into machines that serve the city and do the terra-forming and fending off attacks of the phoboi (who are a bit like the Quiet but who for some reason do not like the city). However there are also brief interludes with humans who have become what Charles Stross might call weakly god-like intelligences (see Accelerando) as well as briefer flashbacks and the occasional reminiscences of some of the characters back on Earth just as the ability to code human intelligence, and upload personalities, becomes possible. As the story progresses we see the thief begin to remember his past lives and the detective preparing to foil an as yet unknown crime attempt but one he that has been forewarned will take place at the ceremony to mark an aristocrat leaving human form (pseudo-dying) to begin a stint as a Quiet. And so the game is afoot…

This is Rajaniemi's debut novel and many months prior to its publication (2010 in the British Isles by Gollancz and 2011 in N. America by Tor US) there have been rumbles as to the author being a major new talent. Now, sometimes such early warnings are hype but the fairly respectable debut advance Hannu received, as well as the book's rights being promptly sold on both sides of the Atlantic, are testimony to this novel's launch heralding something rather special. Indeed the author himself seems to have done quite a bit with his life especially for one so young (32). Hannu Rajaniemi's CV reads a bit like two of the Concatenation team combined (not myself I hasten to add): he is an Oxbridge mathematics graduate with an interest in the mathematical aspects of physics (especially string theory); he has applied these skills to commercial and technological companies including aerospace; and he considers his scientific and mathematical background to be a major influence on his fiction writing. This last is undoubtedly self-evident from The Quantum Thief which, for seasoned SF readers, could be described as Greg Egan mainlining Charles Stross cut with just a dash of Iain Banks for character nuance. It is ultra hard SF that fans of Egan will simply love, featuring a plot worthy of Banks wrapped up in an adventure Stross might well have outlined. The way citizens deal with the issue of privacy, in an era in which (we pedestrian early 21st century readers may call) cyberspace's boundaries with the real world are blurred, is interesting. To say I rather liked The Quantum Thief is (for benefit of our overseas regulars) typical Brit understatement.

I should perhaps point out that if you are not a fan of ultra-hard SF, or complex plots set against a richly exotic background, then you may perhaps find The Quantum Thief slightly hard work. Indeed – my being a bear of little brain – I felt it one of those books where you either needed to jot down the characters and factions as you went along for reference, or alternatively once you read it to re-read it straightaway so as to see exactly how everything fits together (the review proofs sent Concatenation did not include any glossary). This is not a criticism for if you are at all like me then you read fiction for different reasons, including light entertainment, sense of wonder and the joy in unwrapping a carefully crafted story presented in a neat if not an intricate package. One of the book's strengths is that it is not just a story set in an exotic future, but a tale that explains the future as the plot progresses; why things are the way they are eventually become apparent. The Quantum Thief may not be light entertainment but it is these other things that fully rewards the reader. This one is surely destined to be short-listed for the BSFA as well as Locus (best debut) awards. Gollancz editor Simon Spanton is of the opinion that it will be short-listed for the Clarke (book) Award: he may well be right.

The really good news is that Rajaniemi has two more novels in the pipeline and the end of The Quantum Thief (which neatly wraps up the story) does signal a possible follow-up.

Jonathan Cowie

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