Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guest Review of The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Posted by Simcha 4:11 PM, under | 8 comments

When I had first heard of The Quantum Thief I thought it sounded like a unique and fun scifi adventure, and so I asked Tor if I could receive a copy to review. To my delight I found the book waiting for me in my mailbox a couple of weeks later and as soon as I got home I got started on it. But The Quantum Thief was not quite what I had expected and after finishing it I knew there was no way I would be able to write a coherent review of this book. In fact, the more I thought about the story the more confused I was. The only solution was to pass the book on to someone else, so I offered it up to Baruch who has written several reviews for me in the past. Baruch is also well-versed in geeky tech stuff so I thought he would understand the story a lot better than I. Luckily for me I was right and I am happy to be able to present you with his review of The Quantum Thief.

Jean le Flambeur is a post-human criminal, mind burglar, confidence artist and trickster. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his exploits are known throughout the Heterarchy - from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to steal their thoughts, to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of the Moving Cities of Mars. Except that Jean made one mistake. Now he is condemned to play endless variations of a game-theoretic riddle in the vast virtual jail of the Axelrod Archons - the Dilemma Prison - against countless copies of himself. Jean's routine of death, defection and cooperation is upset by the arrival of Mieli and her spidership, Perhonen. She offers him a chance to win back his freedom and the powers of his old self - in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed . . . 

The Quantum Thief reviewed by Baruch Speiser

“You know, I’m finally starting to feel myself again. Fighting a cabal of planetary mind-controlling masterminds with a group of masked vigilantes – that’s what life should be all about.”

This revelation of Jean le Flambeur, which comes about two hundred pages into Hannu Rajaniemi’s incredibly accomplished The Quantum Thief, is a perfect summary of this epic-but-gonzo tale of mystery. Rajaniemi’s first novel is a shockingly unique kind of artwork, a patchwork of brilliant ideas packaged into something so inordinately different that you can’t help but marvel at the author’s imagination. It is as if Rajaniemi, a self-professed hardcore mathematics, physics, and artificial intelligence geek, dares to hover near the edge of ludicrous in order to stimulate us; trying to have us conceptualize a world so very different than our own.

Flambeur, a famous thief imprisoned in The Prison (as if there was anywhere else a famous thief should end up), is forced to spend all day engaged in duels against himself and other alien life forms. This is followed afterward by constant resurrections, over and over again, in order to repeat the process. Each time he is defeated, the other beings – whether they are copies of him or other life altogether – “spread.” It’s not really defined what that means, but you really don’t care – because suddenly, the unthinkable happens: someone actually breaks the shmuck out.

Rescued by a winged Oortian named Mieli – who often sends her glass crashing to the floor when she forgets that she’s actually in a place with gravity – Flambeur discovers that he is far from being anyone’s favorite. Mieli has sprung him only because she needs him to do a job. She needs him to steal something. After all, he’s a thief.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to steal. All Mieli knows is that her deity has instructed her to go to The Oubliette and find whatever it is Flambeur hid from himself. See, the crafty bastard is so good that he even stole his own memories – and now someone important wants them back.

If you enjoy being confused, then you will find no shortage of entertainment. The Quantum Thief is not just science fiction, but a step into a majestically vast world of indescribable otherness. It steals from nearly every language and culture to throw together a world whose building blocks are perhaps deliberately foreign. Nearly every sentence in this novel contains verbiage that reminds you you’re not in Kansas anymore: co-memories, gevulot, synthbio life, combat autism, zokus, Atlas Quiets, the exomemory, q-dots, illegal Sobornost tech, gogol pirates, Resurrection Men, mind-revealing agoras, tempmatter, masked Tzaddikim, cryptarchs, the phoboi – if you lack the ability to “just go with it”, then this book is not for you. Not everything is explained; and to some extent, that’s sort of the point – no one explains to you how your refrigerator works, so no one will bother explaining to you how a spaceship is a recombinant telepathic life form. It just is. Get over it and move on.

Any attempt at comparing The Quantum Thief to other works in science fiction is an exercise in literary stretching - enough that you might just pull a muscle. I profess to not be well-steeped in modern science fiction, but I find it hard to imagine The Quantum Thief being remotely like anything else out there. In many ways, it is familiar; yet in others, so radically different. Parhonen, the living spaceship, seems oddly reminiscent of Jane in Orson Scott Card’s Ender series; yet I only conceived of this connection well after I finished it.

Perhaps more familiar is the tsundere-ish Mieli, who externally seems to despise Jean yet still ends up seeing him as a comrade somehow. Of course, Rajaniemi decides the audience hasn’t had their daily dose of sexual romp, so “the Pellegrini” – Mieli’s goddess – takes over her body just so that she can play the seductress. To be fair, the Pellegrini seems to have a history with Monsieur Flambeur – so I doubt that this is a forced encounter. Nonetheless, it still had me thinking of the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact, another plot device in which a vast consciousness is shoved into a female’s body for nothing more than the sake of good theater. On the other hand, The Quantum Thief is entirely about vast consciousness being shoved into bodies, so perhaps that’s just par for the course.

There are other shortcomings, although they may not really be shortcomings as much as deliberately unanswered questions. The ending of the book is wide open for multiple sequels with several avenues of thought unexplored, and after a book already filled with so much original content, that can leave a reader feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied. In addition, there are quite a few “interludes” - perspectives of characters who the reader will never really know anything about in this book; clearly indicating that the author is foreshadowing further development in some future follow-up works that are yet to come. It’s not to say that this novel is rambling – it is far more streamlined than many sci-fi books are, and it actually commences with a brisk pace – but some of the interludes do seem like minor distractions. Thankfully, all of them are reasonably brief.

For a first novel, you have to give Hannu Rajaniemi credit – The Quantum Thief is something rather extraordinary. It has its weaknesses, but its own weaknesses are its strengths. I prefer to believe that reading this book is not a journey through bewilderment and disorientation, but rather as a wacky joyride towards a breakthrough in the art of discovery. There’s nothing quite like reading something different, and let me tell you, this book is different. In a good way, though – few novels these days take you places where you could never even dream of being. If that’s what you’re looking for, I recommend you let The Quantum Thief steal you away for a while.

Thank you to Tor for providing me with a review copy of The Quantum Thief, and to Baruch for taking the time to read and review it.

The Fractal Prince, the sequel to The Quantum Thief, is released today in the UK.


*wonders if it would work if I asked Tor for books* ;) I love Tor!

Anyway, I really should read this one, I mean he is Finnish after all

Oh this sounds interesting. Just different enough to make me curious and familiar enough to sweep me away.

Oh and yes... don't you love Tor?

Blodeuedd: I also love Tor. They are one of the few publishers that send books to Israel. Though I have to say that I'm not sure if this is a book you would really enjoy.

Melissa: This was definitely different from anything else that I've read, and I enjoyed that. But after I finished it I wasn't sure what exactly had happened, and if the story-line had even been tied up. Though that's probably just me.

Simcha, sorry to hear you didn't get along with this book. But glad you found someone to review it. I know I feel bad when I request a book and well, don't want to review it. :) Thank you!

Not for me you say...hm. How come? I am sure you might be right cos sci-fi, well not much works for me

What a wonderfully thorough review; you almost make me want to take that journey into bewilderment. Unfortunately, I just read a book falling into the category of "confusing" so I will perhaps hold off for now.

As an aside, I was just reading an article this morning of how an ARC of this book was selling for 275 pounds on EBay?! Contemplating this is enough to pull a muscle.

Blodeuedd: It's not that I don't think you would enjoy the scifi aspects, it's just that the story line can be really hard to follow and for me that confusion sometimes made it hard to enjoy the story. I also have to say that I also felt kind of distant from the characters. But in the end, it was a book that I was glad that I read because it was so unique, so perhaps you should give it a try as well and see what you think.

StephanieD: I don't usually try to get ARC's because I prefer receiving the completed novel, along with the cover, but now I really wish I had gone for the ARC ;)

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