Monday, December 6, 2010

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi

I wanted to talk about Hannu Rajaniemi's first novel, The Quantum Thief, because I think it is the kind of science fiction that I'd like to write.

This isn't a review, but I feel like I should say a few words about the plot. The book is about the master thief Jean le Flambeur. In the opening chapter, he is sprung from prison (a prison of the mind, where he plays out the Prisoner's Dilemma endlessly, against himself) by Mieli, a woman from the close-knit communities of the Oort Cloud, and her ship Perhonen. They need le Flambeur to steal something, but in order to do so he first needs to retrieve his old personality and memories. He hid them, even from himself, on the moving Martian city of the Oubliette, where personal information is tightly controlled and the seconds in your life are a commodity. Of course, once le Flambeur arrives, the great young detective Isidore is immediately on his tail.

So what do I like so much about it? I'm just going to say straight off that Rajaniemi has, I think, a very literary writing style for a science fiction author. His prose feels pretty sparse, but in a way that is quite pleasant to read. I think that's something I'm unlikely to be able to emulate, though. I tend to be wordy.

The book is really about exploring possible societal responses to things like immortality, and the digitisation of the human mind. Transhumanism, I guess. Mostly this is done through the lens of the Oubliette, where society has chosen one set of rules to deal with these issues. There are plenty of hints to other cultures and their responses to the same questions, though, generally as they come into conflict with the Oubliette and the characters trying to solve a mystery within it.

The real treat, though, is that those questions are explored pretty much entirely through the characters. Mieli is an outsider in the Oubliette, confused by its social norms. Isidore is very much part of the system. And le Flambeur is caught between the two, trying to work out how he used the Oubliette's social system to hide from everyone, himself included. It never feels like Rajaniemi is lecturing us about the ideas he's interested in; they're just explored naturally as the plot unfolds. 

That's a neat trick -- I think all science fiction writers aspire to it, but often with limited success. I'm not sure exactly how Rajaniemi does it. Lots of detailed world-building, probably. He's clearly got a knack for thinking through plausible responses to his world-building, too. It's too common, in my opinion, for a piece of technology or an idea in a science fiction story to leave society essentially unchanged.

Rajaniemi has clearly thought long and hard about what it means if your mind and personality, as well as everything you see and hear, can be hacked, uploaded, backed-up, transferred, pirated, and all those things we can do with data. That's cool. He's also come up with a fast-paced, exciting plot that keeps the pages turning. Just because you're exploring ideas doesn't mean you can't blow a few things up along the way.

It's not perfect, though. There are a couple of pitfalls I'd like to avoid (although if Rajaniemi can't, there's probably no hope for me!). The first is that the book is very demanding. Science fiction tends to have a pretty steep learning curve; it can take a while to have any clear idea what's going on. This is especially true in The Quantum Thief. Rajaniemi didn't shy away from using new words to describe new concepts, and while it generally added to the feel of the book, it did make it quite dense. A glossary would have helped, and none was present. Really, though, I'm not sure if you haven't already failed if a glossary is necessary.

There are also interludes scattered throughout the book whose reason for being there took a long time to reveal itself. A less patient reader might have been turned off by these bits. Then again, a more attentive reader than I might have worked out why they were there much sooner.

Rajaniemi also played a game with perspective which I found a bit jarring. le Flambeur's parts are told in first person, everybody else's in third person. I'm not really sure why he did that. No doubt there's a clever reason, but it's buried too deep for me, and it just sort of got on my nerves.

The book also suffers a little, in my opinion, from first-book-of-a-series syndrome. While the central plot (retrieving le Flambeur's personality) is wrapped up by the end of the book, very satisfactorily, there is an epilogue that clearly sets the scene for the next novel. I really do prefer the Alastair Reynolds/China Mieville method for writing a novel series: same setting, different plot and characters.

Woah, this got long. And I feel like I just scratched the surface. Suffice it to say, I thought The Quantum Thief was an amazing book, and I know it's one I'll be coming back to again. If anyone out there has read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what Rajaniemi did well, and what (if anything!) you didn't like so much.

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