Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief [Library of Babel]

I’ve heard a lot of buzz about The Quantum Thief— see, for example, this enthusiastic review from Gary K. Wolfe, so I was psyched when it finally became available in the US a little while back. Of course, the down side of this sort of buzz is that it’s almost impossible to live up to the promise.

the thief of the title is one Jen Le Flambeur, who is in prison when the novel starts. But not an ordinary prison– the Dilemma Prison, in which infinite replicas of the minds of the imprisoned find themselves in little glass cells which open to reveal one other prisoner. Each of the prisoners has a gun, and can decide to either shoot the other, or “cooperate” by not shooting; those who get shot die painfully, and are resurrected to run the thought experiment again.

That right there gives you a good idea of the kind of showily clever inventiveness is on display throughout the book. Of course, just suffering through the Dilemma Prison wouldn’t make much of a book, so there’s the inevitable jailbreak (which you can read at Tor.com), orchestrates by a powerful and mysterious entity who has sent a woman named Mieli and her ship to bust Le Flambeur out and reincarnate him:

I was right: Perhonen is an Oortian spidership. It consists of separate modules, tethered together by nanofibres, living quarters spinning around a central axis like an amusement park ride to create a semblance of gravity. The tethers form a network in which the modules can move, like spiders in a web. The q-dot sails–concentric soap-bubble-thin rings made from artificial atoms that spread out several kilometres around the ship and can catch sunlight, Highway mesoparticles and lightmill beams equally well–look spectacular.

I steal a glance at my own body as well, and that’s when I’m really impressed. The spimescape view is seething with detail. A network of q-dots under the skin, proteomic computers in every cell, dense computronium in the bones. Something like that could only have been made in the guberniya worlds close to the sun. It seems my rescuers are working for the Sobornost. Interesting.

Mieli’s mysterious employer wants Le Flambeur to do something on Mars, which is somehow related to his own past, though he can’t remember how. And meanwhile, on Mars, a young amateur detective names Isidore Beautrelet finds himself hired on to a new case, one that will rock the foundations of Martian society.

Lots of reviews of this speak rapturously about the use of modern physics, but that aspect of the book left me cold. For every case where Rajaniemi gets something right– privacy technology involves quantum encryption, and several references are made to trapped ions as the basis of this– there is at least one place where he uses buzzwords from physics to mean “magic.” The notion of “weaponized Bose-Einstein condensates” doesn’t really wow me– I did my post-doctoral research on BEC, and it’s just not that threatening.

The part of the book that has some “wow” to it is the Martian society, which is based on an intense and customizable privacy system called “gevulot,” which can not only prevent strangers from seeing you, but it can prevent acquaintances from remembering details of their interactions with you. This is a really cool idea, and fortunately, much more central to the book than the physics-derived technobabble. It’s a little like the divide between Beszel and Ul Qoma in Mieville’s The City and the City, though here it’s a matter of magic technology not inexplicable personal discipline that keeps the system running. The gevulot system isn’t described in quite as much detail, but it’s somewhat more central to the plot, and a good deal more fun than the “unseeing” of Mieville’s book.

Anyway, this is a fast-paced and enjoyable New Space Opera type adventure, that jumps around picking up bits from all over the SF genre and others– a little Phillip K. Dick here, a little Cowboy Bebop there, a dash of detective fiction, a smattering of caper movie. Rajaniemi’s very clever, and knows it, but he mostly gets away with it. I’m not entirely sure the ending makes sense (but then, I’m way short on sleep), but it’s enough fun getting there that I don’t even resent the blatant sequel hook at the very end.

I liked this a good deal more than any of the things I read that made the actual Hugo ballot this year, but it’s in one of those weird release-date limbo situations where it wasn’t released in the US in time to make this year’s ballot, but will seem like old news by the time next year’s nomination period rolls around. Hopefully, his next book won’t suffer the same problem; whenever it comes out, though, I’ll definitely get a copy.

The less said about the physics, though, the better.

3 thoughts on “Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief [Library of Babel]

  1. When I read the book I was aware thar R. is a relatively new author, which kept my expectations at a realistic level. I rather liked it.

    If you want a really clever book, check out Peter Watts retro-debugging of common hard SF tropes in Crysis:Legion http://www.amazon.com/Crysis-Legion-Peter-Watts/dp/0345526783/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1307910322&sr=1-1

    W. starts off with the unpromising task of writing a novelization of a computer game, but manage to turn rubbish into gold. He adresses -and solves- a whole host of common logical paradoxes of SF stories.

    Why would aliens be interested in our mediocre world? Check.
    Why don’t we get exterminated within ten seconds of the conflict with a supercivilisation? Check.
    Fermi’s paradox? Check. Why are the alien combat armour suits not designed to give a total protection? Why is the biological weapon not capable of sporeading from one human to another? Check.
    (If they had hired him to sort out the last episode of “Lost”, it would not have been such a disappointment!)

    He even manages to slip in a reference to Beowulf, the part when the exhausted hero is woken up by a troll straddling the roof of the house, banging on it to make him come out and fight. I loved that part.

  2. FWIW, mieli=mind, which suggests something deeper.
    Oh, and perhonen=butterfly. I used to work on Finnish butterflies.

    Hm. Perhaps these are both supposed to be a reference to Psyche?

    The part of the book that has some “wow” to it is the Martian society, which is based on an intense and customizable privacy system called “gevulot,” which can not only prevent strangers from seeing you, but it can prevent acquaintances from remembering details of their interactions with you.

    “Gevulot” is Hebrew for “borders” or “limits”. Is the privacy system something created by Israelis?

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