No Prison, Except in Your Mind: A Review of The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

official cover from Tor Books

In the opening of The Quantum Thief, Jean Le Flambeur, the most notorious thief in the Heterarchy, is stuck in the Dilemma Prison where he is forced to kill twisted copies of himself everyday before they can kill him.  Countless times, he is killed and brought back to life, always fearing that the next time will be the last time he wakes up.  So when the mysterious woman Mieli, an Oortian agent whose employer may be a goddess, offers to break him out if he will assist her on a heist, he has little choice but to agree.  However, in order to pull off this as-yet-unexplained heist, Jean must first steal something else: the memories he apparently hid from himself years ago.

To find his memories, Mieli takes Jean to the Oubliette, the walking city of Mars, where the streets moves, Time is currency, privacy is strictly controlled, and all events, thoughts, and memories are stored on a gigantic database.  Jean’s quest to find himself is hampered by mind-thieves, post-human gods, conspiracy theorists, and people who know more about who he used to be than he does.  Meanwhile, Isidore Beautrelet, an architecture student and amateur detective who solves mysteries using old-fashioned deduction (a la Sherlock Holmes), is hired to stop the legendary criminal Jean Le Flambeur, and finds he may be in over his head.

The Quantum Thief, is Hannu Rajaniemi debut novel and first of a trilogy (and is due to be released in the U.S. May 10th).  It is a complex and daring undertaking.  It requires quiet a lot of effort on the part of the reader, and is not an “easy” or “light” read.  The ‘in media res’ opening is somewhat disorienting, though I believe in a way that successfully highlights the alien environment and introduces the readers to some very exotic technology and concepts.  The first three chapters introduce quite a few important characters in rapid succession, without much background.  And the most difficult and frustrating aspect (at least for me) is the rapid catalogue of neologisms and jargon that Rajaniemi throws at the reader in the first few chapters – generally with little-to-no explanation and very little context to muddle through with.

There is certainly no way to avoid such jargon in a high, far-future science fiction, and I actually enjoy neologisms.  And, of course, as the story progresses the reader does begin to gain a sense of what the jargon actually means.  However, there are a number of words and concepts that remain frustratingly vague, and I think Rajaniemi might have overdone it just a little.  The use of neologism and jargon is, in fact, so ubiquitous that there is already a Wikipedia page filled with definitions.

All that being said, this novel is well worth a little extra effort on the part of the reader.  The intricacy of the plot (which I won’t even attempt to summarize for fear of giving away too much) is a treat in and of itself.  The reader pieces the puzzle together right along side Jean Le Flambeur as he rediscovers himself, and that discovery offers many rewards with each “aha!” moment, as well as several twists you will never see coming.  The first few chapters may prove a challenge, and some may be tempted to lay the book aside in favor of something that requires a little less active participation, but I believe those who stick around to the end will be very glad they did.

One of the great enjoyments of this novel is, of course, the setting – as is often true for science fiction that is set in the distant future.  Rajaniemi’s vision is complex, epic, and mildly dystopic.  The Heterarchy is a far-future version of our own solar system, where various cultural and political factions struggle for control.  The Sobornost seem to be the most formidable power in the solar system, and are the ones who created the Dilemma Prison, but they remain mysterious and unexplained throughout the novel.  The zoku colonies are an individualistic society who once fought the Sobornost and lost, and are apparently the descendants of an MMORPG guild that turned gaming into reality.  The society in the Oubliette is, thankfully, described in more detail.  People communicate through shared memory, post-human bodies can be built and your consciousness downloaded into it, and when you run out of Time, you “die” and spend years as a Quiet – your mind downloaded into a machine to perform the necessary tasks that keep the city moving until you are “born” again.

However, I believe the greatest aspects of this novel are the characters themselves.  While, much of their back-stories are referred to only in passing, left to guess-work (and probably to further explanation in the sequels) the flashes of insight offered, and the interactions between the characters, give the reader plenty to work with as the novel builds on itself.  Mieli is a fascinating character with motivations only hinted at in this first book, but whose deep sense of honor and duty, and highly volatile temper, make her likable without being too perfect.  Furthmore, Mieli’s sentient spaceship is flirtatious and sarcastic, making her a perfect a foil to Mieli’s more serious, straight-backed attitude. The amateur detective, Isidore, is so intelligent, so determined, and yet so awkward in social situations that I, at least, cannot help but find him adorable.  Also, he quotes Sherlock Holmes on a number of occasions and even has a pet named Sherlock – what isn’t there to like?  Finally, there is Jean Le Flambeur himself.  He is, in his own words, a genius and “the god of thieves” – this is, at first, hard to imagine as the reader first encounters him in the face of failure, having been caught and imprisoned at the beginning – but as the novel continues, Jean’s increasingly elaborate plans certainly indicate a ridiculous amount of intelligence and deviousness.  He is also a consummate charmer, highly arrogant, and so amused by life in general that it is hard not to like him despite yourself.  He is one of my favorite kinds of characters: he isn’t really a villain, but you can’t really categorize him as a “good guy” either.  He lives in a constant state of amoral ambiguity, with a complex set of rules, where his own desires trump all else, but sometimes doing the honorable thing is okay too.  His mantra throughout the novel is: “There is always a way out.  No prison, except in your mind,” and it is this belief that has kept him going for centuries.

It is obvious that many things influenced the writing of this novel.  For one, Hannu Rajaniemi, is a physicist who holds a PhD in String Theory and is the director of a think tank that specializes in advanced math and artificial intelligence.  Of course, as I mentioned, Rajaniemi’s indebtedness to Sherlock Holmes is clear and unabashed.  I also think the character of Le Flambeur was probably highly influenced by that most famous of fictional thieves (also with a French name) – Arsene Lupin, from the novels by Maurice LeBlanc.  Some readers have noted the influence of Charles Stross; I must admit I haven’t yet read any Charles Stross so I cannot make that comparison.  However, I believe the similarities between The Quantum Thief and William Gibson’s Neuromancer are too many to be ignored.  This is not to say that The Quantum Thief is not original in every way, because it is, but the influence is obvious – as I think is true for many science fiction writers who started after the beginning of cyberpunk.

The Quantum Thief is an intellectual work-out, full of complex twisting plotlines, abstract technology, and big philosophical ideas, but at its heart is a still a human story about betrayal and revenge, about desire in every form, and about choices and the consequences of those choices.  This novel does require effort and close attention which may turn off some readers, and yet I finished it in six hours flat, which should tell you something.  And when the sequel, The Fractal Prince, comes out in 2012, you can bet I’ll be first in line to buy it.

For another reviewer’s opinion of the book, check out “The Criminal is a Creative Artist: A Review of The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi” by Stefan Raets.

Sidenote: I received an ARC of The Quantum Thief from Tor Books during a Twitter drawing, but I was not asked to write this review.

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