This book has no right to be a debut. It’s exhilarating, a tour de force.
The Quantum Thief is a heist thriller the threads of which are woven into a sinuous and densely realised future. It’s a challenging read, I’ll admit hard to follow in places, as Hannu Rajaniemi displaces the awesome intelligence and agency of his protagonist, the ‘Thief’, into discontinuous layers – his past self, his memories – locked away. The threads deepen and widen, the narrative is fragmented, but not frustratingly so; it’s as though it reflects the discontinuity of self that resonates throughout this future.
The heist, such as it is, is part of a much larger game being played by a seemingly all-powerful race (?) the Sobornost and exile factions on Mars, living on ‘The Oubliette’, a giant walking city that wanders the Martian landscape. While the thief, sprung from a ‘Dilemma Prison’ in order to execute the heist, is ostensibly a pawn, it becomes obvious he has a deeper plan of his own, and so his motives, like much else in this novel, are nestled within other motives, each step he takes both for himself and his employer. A conspiracy is uncovered that threatens the city, the very fabric of its culture, and the thief is somehow, at the back of it all, aware of what’s going on.
The thief’s execution of his plan is all the more difficult because his ‘masters’ have direct access to his mind, after a fashion, but he has rigged an elaborate mind palace, the keys to which he had hidden many years before, to protect himself both against such things, and from himself it would seem.
Against him is Isidore, an homage to Sherlock Holmes (though the demeanour comes across as more distinctly Colombo in my mind). He is wonderfully realised, his existence as the Holmes to our protagonist’s Moriarty is all the more entertaining for the fact that the thief has a heart, while being raffish and impulsive to boot. Both characters are extremely likeable geniuses. There is a beautiful vignette by way of introduction to Isidore, as he solves a miniature ‘locked room’ type of crime, a clever and satisfying mini-plot that could have filled a much longer story by itself. Here it just sets up the character and his own backdrop and conflicts, until both he and thief are brought together by their relationship to a group of superhero-cum-civil rights activists empowered to protect the Oubliette citizens’ privacy.
With me so far? ;) As I said, it’s all rather densely plotted, and as the thief and Isidore head towards the climax, the stakes rise satisfyingly. The twists and reveals are very clever and the dynamics between these two, as well as between the thief and his ‘minder’, Mieli, who is cognitively linked to him as part of ensuring he lives up to his part of the bargain for being freed. Needless to say, both she and his ‘ex’, Raymonde, are as exasperated by him as they are enamoured of him. Given both these characters are themselves seriously kick-ass it might be argued that their tolerance/indulgence of him rings a little hollow, but whether I’m just used to this kind of trope or not, it feels plausible without diminishing their agency in the novel.
The thing that sets this novel apart for me, however, is how interestingly and coherently imagined this future is. As you are plunged in, a strange vocabulary peppers you like the spray of a machine gun. Here’s how he sets a combat sequence up:
“Far above, the ship sends down a burst of exotic weakly interacting particles through the room. The skeletons of the vasilevs ghost in her vision. Her metacortex matches patterns, classifies hidden weapons. Ghostguns. Sobornost weapons, with bullets that take over your mind. Damn it. With a thought, she brings her own systems online.
Her right hand contains a q-dot gun, a linear accelerator firing semi-autonomous coherent payloads. Her left has a ghostgun with an array of nanomissiles: each has a war gogol ready to invade enemy systems, to flood them with copies of itself. The programmable matter layer under her epidermis becomes armour, her fingernails harder than diamond. The fusion reactor in her right thighbone spins up. The metacortex Nash engine chooses a set of optimal targets and a cover position for the thief.”
The hard science forms that kind of shell of believability where anyone without a doctorate in quantum mechanics can get the gist enough to feel like it’s all super-advanced, and yet the concepts are wonderful; artificial brains the size of planets, ships with “q-dot sails – concentric soap-bubble-thin rings made from artificial atoms…(that) catch sunlight, Highway meso-particles and light mill beams”. The thief’s given a body with ‘proteomic computers in every cell, and he can view this body externally, as well as the ship he’s inside, through a ‘spimescape’. Nope, I got nuthin’.
I can’t do justice to the many-faceted references to the nature of things in the far future. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking, but one passage does suggest a problem that Rajaniemi presumably chooses not to tackle, in a scene where Mieli is interrogating someone (a ‘vasilev’) for information:
“Then she pulls the surgeon gogol from her metacortex and tells it to begin. It traps the vasilev into a sandbox and starts cutting; separating higher conscious functions, rewarding and punishing…The surgeon gogol’s outputs are cold readouts of associative learning in simulated neural populations.”
Here it seems the ‘surgeon’ has reconstructed the mind/brain of the vasilev from defiant to perfectly pliable, in order for her to interrogate it and get the truth out of it.
In this ‘post-human’ future where persons can be discrete from bodies; sliced, diced, able to reconstruct their physiques (with the right kind of body) at will, they don’t seem able to reconstruct their personalities. The characteristics I perceive the characters to have in what I’ve described above seem to be immutable. Yet this must be the writer’s conceit, a willing blind spot, the only aspect of this future that seems unchanged. And it has to for the narrative to be compelling enough to read, as a novel. I couldn’t care about characters that could reconstruct their predilections at will, though this technology is clearly available.
For all that, communication between persons in this future is fascinatingly conceived, whether it be brain to brain messaging, called ‘qupts’, between Isidore and his girlfriend, to the concept of ‘gevulots’, a kind of privacy matrix between citizens of the Oubliette existing neurally and capable of transmitting via thought the opening and closing of privacy protocols defining what two people are capable of interacting about, indeed, how much they can even see of each other. People can pass each other ‘memories’ through it, and it’s a brilliant concept woven into a plausible etiquette of social interaction between Martians. At the same time, the Martians have an ‘exomemory’, a sort of Jungian collective consciousness and record of public fact, that weaves all of this together and forms (I think) a glue or basis for ‘gevulot’, but is itself political and at the heart of the larger plot.
Another major aspect to this novel is the notion of currency being ‘Time’, every citizen of the Oubliette owning a watch through which they can sell their time as a human to buy things, and when their time is up, they become robotic workers, servants to the humans, keeping the city going, until they have served enough time to be ‘reborn’ as humans. As a society of immortals goes, it’s remarkably well balanced. To Rajaniemi’s credit, this concept plays into the development of the plot intimately as well.
If you’ve got this far you probably have some idea how I’ve struggled to articulate how fertile this novel is for both great writing, storytelling and far future world-building.
It’s a difficult read, and having started the sequel, which opens up more of the thief’s backstory and the bigger picture generally, obliquely referenced in this debut, it is only getting more difficult, more layered. If you found Cloud Atlas easy to follow, this might be a heartier meal. I’m hanging on by the coat-tails as Rajaniemi drags me through this amazingly conceived universe. I can’t offer greater praise to another writer than that they send me back to my own work feeling like ‘I’ve got a long way to go, must try harder!’