Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Quantum Thief, a review

Sooo, this was a short week thanks to the Labor Day holiday. It didn't mean I got much work done, however. Actually, I deleted content more than I added it to the stories I'm working on!

Fortunately, I finished (finally) these two novels, The Quantum Thief, and The Fractal Prince, both by Hannu Rajaniemi. I had already read The Quantum Thief and reviewed it on Amazon and Goodreads, but I gave it another go.

The experience was considerably different, much of the content making more sense the second time around. I enjoyed them so much that I returned them to the library and bought their ebook counterparts for my ipad.



Author: Hannu Rajaniemi

Genre: Science Fiction

Premise: Part one of a trilogy in which the main character, a legendary thief named Jean le Flambeur, escapes from a Dilemma Prison to steal something for a goddess. Their first order of business, and the main plot of The Quantum Thief, is to go to Mars to get Jean's memories back, so he can become the Jean le Flambeur of legend.

What didn't work for me

Just look at the premise! One of the off-putting elements of this novel is its hardcore introduction to the science of its fictitious world. While reading the first few pages, you get hit with a paragraph like this one:

"They are in a q-dot bubble fourteen klicks above the Cleopatra Crater, a little pocket of humanity, sweat and sex on a rough precipice of Maxwell Montes. Sulphuric acid winds roar outside. The amber light of the cloud cover filtering through the adamantine pseudomatter shell makes Sydan's skin run copper. Her palm fits the contours of Mieli's mons Veneris exactly, resting just above her still moist sex. Soft wings flutter lazily in her belly."

Those wings in that last sentence are not metaphoric.

It is a strategy of Fantasy and Science Fiction to introduce fictitious elements in the author's world, terms, names, etc., in this way. There is enough action here mixed with unknown elements (either because of their fictitious nature or because they require an intimate knowledge of theoretical physics) to be able to cruise through it with a small amount of work.

The problem, for me, was that this happens page after page so that it slows your reading to a crawl. I was tempted throughout to look up some of the terms I knew to be science, like the q-dot. But I really wanted to appreciate this without having to do serious research. It made me quite envious of people who study physics.

The other element that gave me a hard time was the narration. The narrators flip between Jean's first person POV and a third person POV that follows the actions of other characters. Why we didn't just get a third person POV for everyone is beyond me. It wouldn't work if it was only Jean's first person POV since some of the action takes place super-fast time that he would be unable to perceive!

Honestly, having Jean's voice wasn't that much of an advantage. I think I could have appreciated the story just as well without it. Or at least if you're going to try to flip between a third person and first person POV, give us separate chapters. Sometimes, the changes happen within one chapter so that Jean's "I" suddenly is Mieli accessing her metacortex (don't ask me what that is right now).

Finally, this novel squanders many opportunities to do more than just tell a nice genre story. There is the post-human reality of multiple versions of the same being, replicas that are exact down to the quantum states of their minds, all of whom may or may not be linked to one another.

To fully appreciate what was going on, I had to read the novel twice. At last I figured out what happened at the end, with the memories. The story here is very complex and the author helps you very little.

What worked for me

Basically, the same things that worked for me last time.

The world building is magnificent. It is very well thought out, expertly mixing hard science with theoretical science and fiction. And although the information came at you very quickly and with little explanation, there was no doubt that the author had command of the subject matter.

Rajaniemi has an authorial voice that drips with confidence. You truly feel at all times that the world is air tight. Nothing feels impossible or far-fetched. That truly is an accomplishment with this kind of story.

One example of this magnificence is the Martian world of the Oubliette, their exomemory system, their Time economy, and Life/Quiet reincarnation cycles.

In Mars, Mr. Rajaniemi answers the question: What if there was a collective whole where the memories of everyone in society could be accessible to all, like the newsfeed off of any internet news website?

I can see that as the evolution of the world wide web. There are other innovations too, so many that I would need multiple blog posts about them.

Despite the missed opportunities to do more than tell a genre story, the author does include points that make the reader think.

For example, there is a form of immortality in Mars, different than the immortality of the god-like Founders who are in outerspace. But there is the burden of being yourself. The catch is you can't live forever as someone else. It is always you who wakes up after being reincarnated into a body (enhanced or not). This point is better explored in the more philosophical, The Fractal Prince.

And of course, there are the characters themselves. After reading The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince together, you gain an appreciation for the characters that I didn't get from just reading the first novel.

The climax was fuzzy the first time, but it was very well done. The split between Jean and Raymonde at the end adds a layer of complexity to this incarnation of Jean. Refusing to get his old memories and become the legendary thief is an unusual development, given that this is a post-human copy of a post-human copy, going far back to the time when there were actual flesh and blood people on Earth. It should be easier for the main character, but he never feels like a copy.


Having a degree in physics and/or cosmology and/or (preferably) theoretical physics would sure enhance your experience with and possibly your understanding of The Quantum Thief.

But if you're willing to machete your way through scores of unfamiliar terms, exotic worlds filled with beings that are descendants of humans, then you can love this novel. It is lovable.

It's the kind of story that requires more than one reading. Just now, I looked at the first chapter again because something that didn't make sense before finally makes sense now that I read the second installment!

I have a feeling that when the third novel in the trilogy comes out, I will have to read all the books again. And one more time to understand them.

No regrets though, especially since I'm not a science fiction writer. Oh, boy, if I was, this would be one of those novels that you hate to read because the author does it so well.