The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

June 12, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Once again, I’m a little late to the party on a novel that a lot of people have been talking about, but this time it’s not my fault.  Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief has gotten a great deal of acclaim since it was first published last year…in Europe, that is.  We live today, we are constantly told, in a far smaller world than of old, but in book publishing it’s still rather larger than it really ought to be, and the book only managed to cross the Atlantic a few weeks ago.  Rajaniemi has previously published some short stories (including one I’ve read, “Elegy for a Young Elk”) but this is his first novel.

Since I decided early on I would read the novel as soon as it was published in the US, I only skimmed last year’s reviews and didn’t know anything about it.  Fairly or not, however, knowing it had made such a big splash, I couldn’t help but expect a dynamic new voice.  Instead, while reading The Quantum Thief I frequently wondered whether the story reminded me more of William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons.

The male protagonist of Quantum Thief begins the story in bad shape.  At one time he was a player, but now he’s out of the game.  Someone in need of his talents fixes him up and, joined by a female operative and a talking computer, he takes on one last mission.  This describes Quantum Thief‘s Jean le Flambeur, but it also describes Neuromancer‘s Case and Use of Weapons‘ Zakalwe.  The present day story of Quantum Thief sticks fairly close to the Neuromancer template, while Jean le Flambeur’s past is slowly explored much as Zakalwe’s history is the backdrop for Use of Weapons.

I don’t consider this to be a severe criticism.  Originality is overrated, and in my view most SF novels would be improved by a little more similarity to those two books.  Also, when I finished reading the novel and went back to those early reviews I had skimmed before, I found comparisons being made to other novels as well…but different novels.  Rich Horton lists no less than seven authors that he and others saw as influences, but not, alas, Gibson and Banks.  The closest, albeit the most obscure, is John C. Wright, whose Golden Age trilogy also depicts a far future society with a dizzying array of novel technological and social constructs.  Although Wright and Rajaniemi’s stories both begin with the protagonist encumbered with technologically-inflicted amnesia, they are otherwise quite dissimilar.  From early in the trilogy’s first book, it is clear that Wright is chasing some large philosophical questions about reason and human values (and later is willing to subordinate the story to long discussions of same), whereas Quantum Thief is focused on telling an entertaining story.

That’s not to say the novel has nothing on its mind.  In the opening section of the book, the story gestures toward a number of genres and subgenres.  There’s a space battle that suggests we are in for a Peter Hamilton-style space opera, there’s an engaging chapter where a detective solves a mystery and seems to be set up as a foil for le Flambeur (Holmes to his Moriarty, or perhaps Javert to his Jean Valjean), and the description of the Martian city of Oubliette with its use of Time as currency and its citizens’ alternation between slave and master raises the prospect of a Banks-style investigation of life in the far future.  All these prove to be feints.  If the novel has a subgenre within SF it would actually be that of the Big Dumb Object, for Oubliette proves to be an elaborate and intriguing creation, but in the end the novel’s concerns are primarily personal, even psychological, in nature.  Jean le Flambeur has led a long and interesting life, most of which he no longer remembers, but one thing is clear: he is a thief.  Rajaniemi carefully shows us this is not just his profession, but his hobby, and even his personality.

The course of the novel takes us through an exploration both of the Oubliette (the outer world) and Jean le Flambeur’s personality and personal history (the inner world), finally coming to a conclusion that brings the two together very neatly.  A little too neat, actually.  I feel bad criticizing a carefully planned and executed ending when most novels seem to go off the rails in the final third, but I can’t help but feel the unification of the novels’ inner and outer worlds rather cheapens the outer world.  Oubliette is much more interesting, and just plain cooler, when it is a strange future city with bizarre customs, as it is for most of the novel, instead of what it ultimately becomes: a puzzle out of his past for the protagonist to solve, a clockwork nostalgia piece.  This feels like the world of a solipsist, where everything encountered reflects back on the person at its center. This is a convenient device for a novel of psychological discovery, but it makes what otherwise is a huge and wildly diverse solar system seem small and lonely.

The novel has a reputation as hard SF, and depending on your definition it may be, but I think a lot of this stems more from Rajaniemi’s biography (he has a Ph.D. in mathematical physics) than the novel itself.  Though the word “quantum” is in the title and name-dropped in various ways throughout, the novel’s quantum mechanics and nanotechnology are generally indistinguishable from magic. The one exception is the use of entangled particles to communicate.  I am not a physicist but I am given to understand this is, well, nonsense. For some reason it keeps appearing in science fiction anyway.  I am a software engineer, however, so I was pleased to see an interesting use of public key cryptography in the story (though I couldn’t tell you if anyone not already familiar with it will make heads or tails of the presentation).  More unusually and without explanation, the story seems to take a position against strong AI. It’s never mentioned, but in a novel often reminiscent of Banks it is conspicuous in its absence. There are talking computers aplenty, but they all function using “gogols”, which turn out to be uploaded human minds.  Here the worldbuilding did not quite convince me.  Many jobs that seem like they would be automated in the far future, like shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and groundskeepers, are performed by physical human beings working for a paycheck, while gogols are used in ways that seem to belie their software nature.  For example, Oubliette’s automated systems require hundreds of thousands of gogols to operate.  Each of these gogols is the uploaded mind (the soul, really) of a different person.  Unfortunately, this menial labor is boring and even degrading.  So why not just use a single mind (of a particularly loathsome criminal, perhaps, or else a public-spirited volunteer) and copy it?  Some SF stories employ pseudo-scientific explanations to prevent the copying of uploaded minds, but the fact such copying is possible is established in The Quantum Thief‘s opening scene and is a key element in the ending.  Perhaps Oubliette is an unusual case (it is implied that using “real people” to keep the city running has beneficial effects on the psychology of the citizenry) but if so the main characters, most of whom are new to Oubliette, do not find it surprising.

It might not be surprising that a novel so evocative of earlier genre stories isn’t very accessible, but there are far more obstacles to the unschooled reader than just the many tropes and allusions. As someone who loves John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and who liked Neal Stephenson’s Anathem a great deal, I am willing to be patient and learn some vocabulary to read a good book.  But a few chapters into Quantum Thief, I was feeling anxious: I had absolutely no idea what most of the terms being thrown around meant and I was starting to wonder if I ever would. If you find yourself in the same position, take heart and soldier on.  This novel is the product of a decades-long backlash against the infodump, and its merciless barrage of new terms made me start to question my own sympathy for the anti-infodump cause.  Unlike Brunner and Stephenson, Rajaniemi for the most part does not coin neologisms, instead using words from other languages.  Neologisms often sound silly, but at least they carry clues as to their meaning.  Rajaniemi’s terms will prove difficult for all but the most polyglot of readers.  Unlike Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which used latinate words so that his English-speaking readers would glimpse a hazy sense of the meaning but not the specifics, Rajaniemi takes words from modern languages distant from English: gevolut and tzadik from Hebrew, zoku from Japanese,guberniya and sobornost from Russian, and so forth.  There might be a sort of globalist realism in this approach, like the TV show Firefly‘s use of Chinese, but I’m not sure the effect is worth the effort it requires from the reader.  The good news is, once the story settles down into its primary Martian setting the avalanche of new terms ends, allowing the reader to finally get a solid grip on the language through context.  I just hope readers don’t miss out on a good novel because of this learning curve.

And this is a good novel, despite my various complaints.  It’s deep in conversation with past stories to an almost unique degree. I doubt I’ve ever referenced so many other works in a review, and out of ignorance I’m sure I’ve missed plenty more (the protagonist’s name is apparently a reference to a French film, for instance). I should say that although the book has a better and more satisfying ending than many standalone novels, the story is not actually finished, and some number of sequels will be forthcoming. Hopefully these will better explore the colorful solar system Rajaniemi has created and spend more time working out the implications of its societies.



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  1. Read this for book club and everyone hated it. I really liked it. I thought it was neat, and fun, and clever, and I liked that it took a while to figure out what was going on, but then it all just clicked. I feel like that’s a very Gibsonesque way to tell a sci-fi story.

    Never read the sequel, did you?

  2. I’ve read both sequels. Unfortunately I didn’t write reviews of them, but they are pretty good. They’re missing the shock of the new you get from Quantum Thief since they are, in terms of setting, more of the same. But the overall story is solid, it comes to a satisfying ending, and all the strange things that Quantum Thief never explains eventually all make sense, If you enjoyed the first one I think it’s definitely worth going through the rest of the trilogy.

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