RogerBW's Blog

The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi 21 July 2020

2010 science fiction, first of a trilogy. Jean le Flambeur is a thief, broken out of prison to steal something very special. But first he must steal back his own history…

This is unabashedly transhumanist writing, where a human mind can run on a computer that fits in a bullet, and does. The city on Mars moves constantly, carried by engineered creatures which are also those citizens who've run out of Time and must therefore be non-conscious entities for a while, before they are resurrected. But it's also writing so in love with its own ideas that it never stops to consider whether they make any sort of sense.

For example: we open with Jean in the Dilemma Prison, a virtual space where the inmates reenact the Prisoner's Dilemma endlessly in the hope of reforming them. But while the idea is an interesting one, Rajaniemi's so eager to go on to the next thing that the rewards for cooperating or defecting become a nonsense. Never mind! More ideas!

You know, when this is over, I'm going to kill him, Mieli tells Perhonen, smiling at the thief.

Without torturing him first? the ship says. You are getting soft.

There are Great Big Powers out there, and this is very much the sort of book where everything you thought you knew is going to be revealed to be wrong because someone was manipulating it all the time. Combine that with a lack of explanation of most of the specialised terms, and this is definitely something for the seasoned SF reader rather than for someone who was just hoping for a good story.

'It's an honour to meet you,' Isidore says. 'She never mentioned you before. Or her father. Is he around?'

'Perhaps she didn't want to confuse you. I like to use the word "mother", but it is a little more complicated than that. Let us say that there was an incident in the Protocol War involving me and a captured Sobornost warmind.'

And it's fine to give me a puzzle-setting if that puzzle is going to have an interesting solution rather than just "an even bigger entity did it, for inscrutable reasons of its own".

There's lots of shiny nanotech and picotech and quantum tech, and never a thought given to where all the power comes from – or goes to. Put up an impregnable building in seconds? Sure! (Without vaporising the surrounding city.)

But more seriously, perhaps in an attempt to make things comprehensible to the reader, in among all this technology the posthumans who make up the cast are more than anything else obsessed with sex and late-20th-century-style relationships. Culture apparently didn't develop at all after 2010, except where it was forced to by technology. There's even an MMO raiding guild, long outliving the actual MMO but playing at it in what passes for real life.

(Mieli, Jean's enigmatic partner who's working for someone else, is motivated entirely by the hope that she can get back to her lover Sydän. She knows that memories and feelings can be manipulated. She never even considers that this particular feeling might have been put there synthetically in order to get her cooperation. It seemed to me so screamingly obvious that I was waiting impatiently for someone to notice; but I guess that's for a later book in the series.)

Many people whose opinions I respect love this book. For me, less so: the writing's OK, the ideas are great if thrown at the page more than thought through, but the characters are purest soap-opera cardboard (and they're all obsessed with our endlessly fascinating hero, even himself). There's never any sense of tension, because you know that Rajaniemi will just pull out yet another miracle from the infinite bag of them that he's holding behind his back. If you can go along with the action and not try to think through the implications of the parade of wonders, you can have a good time; but that's not what I read science fiction for.

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