The Criminal Is a Creative Artist: A Review of The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Jean le Flambeur is notorious throughout the Heterarchy for his many legendary crimes, but as The Quantum Thief starts off, he is slowly losing his mind inside the Archons’ prison, where endless variations of his personality are forced to play prisoner’s dilemma over and over again. After this ordeal, it’s no surprise that he only resists briefly when the Oortian agent Mieli breaks him out of the hellish prison to enlist his help with a heist. What’s more surprising is that the success of this mission will depend in part on Jean’s ability to recover some of his own lost memories, which he apparently has hidden from himself at some point in the past… Meanwhile, in the Martian walking city known as the Oubliette, architecture student and part time detective Isidore Beautrelet dreams of joining a group of vigilantes called the tzaddikim. He shows his mettle by solving crimes the old-fashioned way: he interviews persons of interest and makes deductions based on facts. This is a rare skill in a privacy-based society where everyone can control how much information they share with the outside world…

Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel The Quantum Thief is a tight, at times confusing but ultimately rewarding far-future story wrapped in a whirlwind of innovative science fiction concepts. There’s so much happening and at such a dizzying pace that it’s at times hard to keep up, especially early on. To make things even trickier, the novel rapidly introduces a few characters who clearly have complex back stories without unwrapping them sufficiently for the reader to feel comfortable. The Quantum Thief will probably lose some readers in the first few chapters because of its learning curve, but it’s more than worth it to stick around until you find your bearings.

The strong point of the novel is definitely its setting: the Heterarchy is a post-human version of our solar system, set an unspecified number of centuries from today. Various factions vie for control, from the mysterious Sobornost collective to the more individualistic zoku, who apparently originated as a MMORPG guild at some point in the past. Digitized consciousness is a reality, and mind transfers are common place; at a certain point, Jean asks for “root access” to his current body. An entire society uses Time as a currency: when you run out, you become a “Quiet” tasked with performing dangerous or menial tasks in a mechanical body. Several fascinating details about the nature and history of this fictional universe are mentioned almost in passing, but that’s more or less how this entire novel works: pay attention to the details as they zoom by, or catch them when you inevitably want to reread the book.

A large part of the reason for The Quantum Thief‘s learning curve is its vocabulary. The novel contains so many neologisms that there’s already a Wikipedia page with definitions. Some of them are fairly easy to figure out (“metacortex,” “exomemory”), a few may make sense depending on which books you’ve read (“spimescape”) or which languages you understand (“gevulot,” “guberniya”), and some you just have to accept for the moment until they start making sense later on. (Rest assured, they will. Sort of.) This large amount of exotic terminology, combined with the lack of exposition and the in medias res start of the plot, make the first few chapters of The Quantum Thief an intellectually exhausting—but rewarding—reading experience.

As for the story itself, I’m not even going to attempt to summarize it here, partly because it’s tremendously complex but also to avoid spoiling it for you. Plot-wise, the book is much more intricate than you’d initially expect, containing a few twists you’ll never see coming. A number of at first mysterious and disconnected flashbacks become centrally important to the plot’s resolution. Still, despite being so high-concept, the novel is action-packed and at times very funny. It’s also pleasantly open-ended—the final chapter is an “interlude”— which should leave fans hungry for The Fractal Prince, the second book in the trilogy, due out sometime in 2012.

If the novel has one weakness, it’s that many of the characters are hard to relate to for us present-day, non-augmented, ordinary humans, especially the notorious, suave arch-criminal Jean le Flambeur who is the main focus of the story. Rajaniemi initially doesn’t give many details about his main character’s past, so the reader just has to accept that Jean is a very successful criminal, even if he’s imprisoned the first time we meet him. It quickly becomes clear how self-assured (okay, arrogant) he is, and as you read on, you learn that his notoriety is well-earned. It’s almost a relief when we meet Isodore in the third chapter, because at least he’s only hyper-intelligent, rather than hyper-intelligent, notorious, impossibly charming and a bit full of himself like Jean.

While The Quantum Thief is a novel that’s more focused on ideas and plot than on characters, it’s still consistently entertaining and hard to put down, even if that may only be the case because you want to figure out the missing pieces of information that the author has been dangling just out of reach. At some point during the story, Jean cleverly says to Mieli’s sentient spaceship Perhonen: “The criminal is a creative artist; detectives are just critics.” Extending that metaphor, Hannu Rajaniemi has successfully pulled off his first major heist with The Quantum Thief—and something tells me it won’t be the last one.

Stefan Raets is a reviewer for Fantasy Literature.


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