Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Quantum Thief


       I have not been able to stop talking about this book for months (yep, two of them now) and I want to discuss it. I first came upon Hannu Rajaniemi when I reviewed his short story collection for one of my compensated gigs. While I didn't think much of The Quantum Thief before then and had written it off as a cyberpunk crime novel (as well as confusing it with M.M. Buckner's War Surf for some reason), I was impressed enough by his short stories to read an excerpt of Quantum Thief, and from there instantly fell in love with it. 

           It's kind of an interesting balancing act to juggle techno-utopianism with fin-de-siecle French pulp novels (the gentleman thief and the master detective archetypes kind of originated with the Arsene Lupin novels quoted as the epigraph to this novel) with a kind of wild high fantasy and some odd quantum entanglement-influenced technological twists. And Rajaniemi nails it one hundred percent. He juggles things with an incredible sense of play that, while the story may not exactly be new to me (I'm wary of any plot that involves someone reclaiming their memory) is exciting in the way it's told. 

And it is brilliant.

More, as always, below.

"Bang Bang. We cooperate."
- Jean le Flambeur

              Jean le Flambeur is in prison. Not just any prison, but the Dilemma Prison, prison of the Archons, a structure used to imprison criminal minds and force them to learn cooperation and rehabilitation through game theory. Unfortunately, the minds imprisoned around him are a homicidal warbot and a malicious program used to troll the inmates, none of which feel particularly cooperative. On the brink of being nearly wiped out, le Flambeur is rescued by a mysterious woman named Mieli and her flirtatious ship Perhonen, who have rescued him on the advice of a technologically advanced goddess known as "pellegrini." They give Jean a body and some use of Perhonen, on the condition that he help them with a job, a job connected to the job he never finished on the Oubliette, capital city of Mars. 

 And then things get weird.

              The Oubliette, lit by the Phobos singularity, is a bizarre construction of layered architecture, where memory and time are carefully-guarded currency and mind pirates siphon out identities in power games played among the "cryptarchs" in the upper classes. People's identities are hidden by a privacy cloud only breached by contracts and exchanged for certain amounts of time held in quantum-entangled watches. And it is here that Jean le Flambeur has hidden something. Something that the goddess and the rest of her pantheon, the Sobornost, want found. Something he wanted to hide from everyone. A work of terrifying magnitude. 

               At the same time, a detective named Isidore, the Oubliette's own wunderkind, is on the trail of a criminal connected to the murder of a chocolatier by mind pirates, and slowly uncovers the Great Work of an artist, an artist deeply connected to the interplanetary thief Jean le Flambeur...

                  Okay, so tonight I have to talk a little about Clarke's Third Law. For those unfamiliar with the law (originated by elder statesman of sci-fi Arthur C. Clarke), it states that "Any significantly-advanced science is completely indistinguishable from magic." It's been used before a few times...Varley's Titan had a scientist on a planet that flirted with the trope, it was the focus of the excellent The Warlock in Spite of Himself and its numerous sequels...hell, even my favorite book of last year, M. John Harrison's Light, used it a little with its fixation on dice, tarot cards, and divination by fishtank. It's a common mode in science fiction, both in movies and in books, and it's a fun one to bring out in debates on stuff like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings*. 

                The reason I mention it here is that Mr. Rajaniemi, a consultant with a degree in String Theory, here dials it up past any levels previously explored. Armed with his knowledge and some rather interesting ideas on advanced technology and transhumanism, The Quantum Thief breaks the barriers between postsingular sci-fi and outright fantasy. It's science fiction, with some grounding in that, but between the MMORPG-influenced Zoku guilds and the weird memory-entanglement of the Oubliette's upper classes, it aims for pure pulp escapism. With this style, Rajaniemi creates something entirely original, though it builds on some of the science fiction that comes before it. It's escapism, yes, but very smart escapism. 

                Another thing I really like about the book is the atmosphere. I mentioned above that The Quantum Thief draws on a lot of French influences. The Arsene Lupin books. The entire idea of "post-revolutionary Mars." Jean's name is even taken from the seminal French nouvelle vague movie (and one of the few nouvelle vague that is actually watchable) Bob Le Flambeur. It creates an interesting atmosphere that steeps the book in older-feeling charms, but with an incredibly fresh-seeming atmosphere. It conjures images of a baroque future of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, nanite-ensconced police officers (one in a bowler hat) and well-tended mansions. 

               Aiding the atmosphere is a rather expansive setting that gives the world a complete cosmology, from odd language to the complex nature of memory contracts and private/public memories in the Oubliette. Rajaniemi puts a lot of thought into the nature of how things work, and it shows in the commonplace way everything feels. While the book has a barrier of entry involving language and themes (it took me a while to figure out what the "gevulot" and "gogols" were), the immersion and rhythm of the book, along with its whirlwind pace, actually work in its favor to create an environment where even if the language is a little unknown, it takes very little time to pick it up and continue on the way. 

                But it is within that pacing that things falter. Throughout the book, there are interludes that, while welcome because they detail more of the setting and the characters, really grind the pacing to a halt. And in a book as breezy and fast-paced as The Quantum Thief, that's more of a weakness than a strength, even when the interludes tie into the story. 

              In the end, though, you should be reading this. You should have skipped out on paragraph two, read the whole thing, and now be prepared to tell me how full of crap I am. Rajaniemi is a mastermind, and in his first novel that he managed to stumble once is an amazing feat in and of itself. This isn't just great (as people have said) "as a debut", it's a great novel period, and hopefully Rajaniemi will become a grandmaster in his own right. 

And now I need to find a way to buy his short story collection.

- Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

Any number of my numerous backlog of stuff, or possibly The Scarlet Gospel, since I've been waiting for that one for almost a decade. 

*If you're either a real nerd or a real jackass. Or in my case, both!

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