Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Mon Sep 27 22:50:31 UTC 2010

This sounds like a dazzling new novel:


Offhand, I can think of about four different ways to read Hannu 
Rajaniemi’s rather astonishing debut novel The Quantum Thief, each of 
them equally valid, each equally inadequate. The first and most obvious 
is to approach it as Greg Egan-style radical hard SF (or maybe 
post-radical, since that movement by now is about as middle-aged as its 
sibling cyberpunk), and Rajaniemi clearly invites such a reading with a 
storm of barely-contextualized inventions in the first few chapters – a 
surreal Dilemma Prison run by immortal minds called Archons on behalf of 
a governing collective called the Sobornost, where prisoners trapped in 
an infinity of glass cells endlessly battle with millions of copies of 
themselves; ‘‘warminds’’ with ‘‘non-sequential dorsal streams’’; 
weaponized Bose-Einstein condensates called q-dots; Oortian spiderships 
full of virtual butterflies; spimescapes; tzaddiks; exomemories; utility 
fogs; gevulots; strangelet bombs and nanomissiles – all with scarcely an 
appositional phrase, let alone an infodump, in sight. It wouldn’t be 
hard to blame a reader for taking a deep breath a few pages in and 
concluding that this is going to mean work.

Yet it really isn’t, as it turns out. From another angle, The Quantum 
Thief is a fairly straightforward cat-and-mouse romantic mystery pitting 
a master thief against a brilliant boy detective in a world so 
information-drenched that crime would seem to be impossible. (In a way, 
this also echoes earlier SF mysteries like Bester’s The Demolished Man, 
with ubiquitous information technology replacing the rather wobbly 
notion of psi powers that was so popular in the ’50s). The plot hook is 
almost pulp: the famous thief Jean le Flambeur is sprung from prison by 
itinerant spacer Mieli and her wisecracking ship Perhonen, who – after a 
dizzying setpiece of a quantum space battle with the pursuing Archons – 
flees with him to Mars for a special assignment commissioned by her 
mysterious employer. Meanwhile, the boy detective Isidore Beautrelet 
(he’s described as 15 years old, but Rajaniemi gives us to understand 
these are Martian years), having just solved the murder of a prominent 
chocolatier (in a nice touch, chocolate is one of Mars’s main products), 
learns that his next case will involve le Flambeur. There is, in other 
words, as much of Maurice Leblanc as of Greg Egan in this mix, and 
Rajaniemi signals this early on when le Flambeur (the only one of the 
three main viewpoint characters to get a first-person voice) mentions 
that Leblanc’s Le Bouchon de Cristal is one of his favorite books, and 
Isidore Beautrelet himself is borrowed, name and all, directly from 
Leblanc’s youthful detective in The Hollow Needle, a novel which pits 
Leblanc’s own Arséne Lupin against Sherlock Holmes, who also gets a 
shout-out or two later on.

So there are some tissue-traces of Egan here, to be sure, and of Bester, 
and of Leblanc. But wait, there’s more! There’s a fair bit of 
reality-testing in the manner of Philip K. Dick, as le Flambeur and 
others are led to question not only their own identities and memories, 
but even the universal Martian ‘‘exomemory’’ that provides the 
community’s consensual reality and history – all of which, in classic 
paranoid Dickian fashion, may be secretly manipulated by some hidden 
masters with unknown motives. ‘‘Perhaps the old philosophers were 
right,’’ muses Isidore’s newest client, ‘‘and we are living in a 
simulation, playthings of some transhuman gods.’’ For all its 
intimidating hard science (and you suspect that Rajaniemi, like Egan, 
knows exactly what he’s talking about), the central new technology in 
the novel is the very Dickian notion of the gevulot, an elaborate system 
of information nodes which permits people to control their degree of 
privacy, while feeding information into the city’s larger ‘‘exomemory.’’ 
And the Martian colony itself – most of the action is set in a giant 
moving city called Oubliette, which is involved in a terraforming 
project – is as politically idealistic as anything in Kim Stanley 
Robinson. ‘‘We believe in what the Revolution stood for,’’ explains one 
character. ‘‘A human Mars. A place where we recreate Earth without 
problems. A place where everyone owns their own minds, a place where we 
belong to ourselves. And that is not possible when someone behind the 
curtain is pulling our strings.’’ This political theme, which also 
echoes the socioeconomic tensions between the inner and outer solar 
systems that we see in novels like Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War, may be 
the least developed of the major themes, but comes to play an important 
role in the backstory which eventually unfolds.

It’s clear that Rajaniemi feels he has to get a lot done with this 
widely anticipated first novel, and for the most part he succeeds 
brilliantly. While his opening setpieces – the prison itself and the 
high-tech space battle between Mieli’s ship and the pursuing Archons – 
are spectacular enough, Rajaniemi really hits stride with the 
peripatetic Martian city of Oubliette, where time is literally currency 
(Isidore’s wealthy client is a ‘‘milliennaire’’), where those whose 
Watches run out must serve time as Quiets, helping run the city’s 
infrastructure, and where privacy is a commodity controlled by an 
elaborate system of protocols and hierarchies enforced by cop-like 
‘‘tzaddiks.’’ But Rajaniemi mitigates the alienating effect of his 
setting by populating his tale with likeable and familiar characters 
that sometimes approach pop culture archetypes – not only the 
bandit-roué with a secret past le Flambeur (whose name may also echo a 
classic Jean-Pierre Melville heist movie), the tough-as-nails 
adventuress Mieli (so battle-ready she has a fusion reactor embedded in 
her thigh), and the brilliant young Isidore (whose Holmesian deductions 
regarding a letter which impossibly appears in his client’s secure home 
are what finally blows the plot open), but also such comic-book figures 
as the Gentleman, a phantom rescuer who appears at opportune times 
throughout the story. Rajaniemi is having as much fun with these 
characters as with his gonzo physics, and by the end of the novel we’d 
be willing to follow them down any of the several sequel-corridors that 
Rajaniemi gives himself. For now, he’s spectacularly delivered on the 
promise that this is likely the most important debut SF novel we’ll see 
this year.

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list