The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Sally Ann Melia

Sally Ann Melia, SF&F
Apr 18, 2013
S A Melia is an English SF&F writer based in Surre
John Jarrold recommended this book to me as an example of new SF published in 2013. So I was keen to have a read and see what was deemed to be the most creative new Science Fiction of the decade.

I was sorely disappointed.

It starts with the most peculiar opening sequence I have yet had the misfortune to read.

"It had no visible auditory organs, just eyes, human eyes, hundreds of them, in the ends of stalks that radiate from its body like exotic fruit."

Ok, so far so inventive.In the first 13 pages the novel changes POV thirteen times. It is not clear if we are seeing the jumbled memories of one person. Or several people looking at different sides of the same puzzle, or in fact what the story is at all.

You're not sure if the main character is male or female, and this is even more confusing because then you are not sure if they are lesbian or straight. Or since names are often dispensed with, whether that bodily part belongs to that character, or indeed that scene is one of their memories or somebody else's all together, it is hard to discern.

We get game-death, prison, aliens and sex in the first 13 pages, which I am sure sounds encouraging, but who was doing what with whom? And when? And what any of this had to bear with the story? And where was the plot? Was there a plot? What the hell? I was still confused.

I did plough on with this narrative, and I also tried reading the last chapter to see if that helped, then I read the cover blurb, and the introduction by the author. Finally I gave up.

This was recommended to me as an example of contemporary published, commercial?, science fiction.

I did not enjoy it. What can I say: Read it and weep!
I managed to finish this, but my only comment was 'didn't live up to expectations.' I do remember it being very confusing. I haven't yet been inclined to buy the sequel.
I didn't find it confusing but I do believe he was trying to make it confusing much like a street hustler keeps up a bunch of rapid fire patter and quick gestures to hide his con - the con, in this case, being that this was your usual post-post-cyberpunk game-playing VR posthuman technofantasy with a marshmallow center and literary allusions so that the critics would hail it as great and original literate "SF" and people (including me) would buy it. But it's really nothing at all but, like I say, a technofantasy retread written more clumsily than necessary. He got my money the first time but, indeed, no more from me. I'd suggest Stross or somebody instead - I'm still not positive I exactly love him either but I may - either way, there's genuine thought and a genuine core in his work.
Yes, for cyberpunk* I quite like Stross but find him somewhat uneven also Jon Courtenay Grimwood but he's also quite uneven.

* Sorry I refuse these 'post' and such like prefixes. What are they going to call post-modern art in another century?
I have a rather different take on it. From my SFF blog:

Hannu Rajaniemi, who writes SFF stories in both English and his native Finnish, first came to my attention as a result of an interview with him in Interzone 255, of which I noted: "[he is] author of the Jean de Flambeur trilogy: The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel. I'd not heard of this author before but the stories, set in a post-singularity universe, sound like an intriguing mixture of space opera, people with god-like powers, and virtual reality."

I was sufficiently intrigued to order the first of the trilogy, and have just finished reading it. It's hard to know where to begin in commenting on TQT, because it is highly original. We first meet Jean de Flambeur in a strange prison with transparent walls, created by the Archons. He has lost his memory, and when he is sprung from jail to steal a specific item, he has to travel to the Oubliette, a moving city on Mars, where he left his memories hidden away. Most of the story is told in the first person by de Flambeur, but there is a secondary plot thread featuring a different character, a student and part-time detective called Isidore Beautrelet, who is investigating crime in the Oubliette.

I am reminded to some extent of Gibson's Neuromancer, which I reviewed on this blog in March 2010, in that the comment I made about that novel applies at least as much to this one:

If I have any criticism it is that the plot is so densely packed, the writing so laconic, that you really have to stay on your mental toes to keep up with everything that's going on. This is not a book to fill an idle moment, you need to settle down and concentrate. In fact, I was tempted to read it again immediately, in order to savour it in a more leisurely fashion and pick up on the nuances that I suspect slipped by me the first time.

TQT is packed full of ideas and concepts, to the extent that I doubt that even reading it twice in quick succession would be enough for me to understand everything going on in every scene; it would probably take three readings and even then I'm not confident that would suffice. Comprehension is not helped by a couple of other characteristics of the writing: most importantly, the author has obviously taken to heart the "show don't tell" mantra, and there are many terms which are introduced without explanation, leaving the reader to try to figure out what they mean from the paucity of clues scattered through the story. Most obviously, there are two opposed groups sharing the Solar System with normal humans, both masters of very high technology; the Sobornost and the zoku. Who they are, and how and why they differ from the rest of humanity (the zoku at least appear to be physically human), is never made clear. I should add that "normal humans" is very much a relative term – the inhabitants of the Oubliette only have a limited time as humans before they have to spend a period as "the Quiet", which seems to involve their personalities being transferred to the biomachines responsible for manual labour. The other issue is that some of the scenes are set in the past rather than the present without this being clearly signalled; something else to keep readers on their toes.

One problem with all this is what I might call "conceptual overload"; I was struggling so much to comprehend the basic situation that I tended to lose track of the characters and the plot. In terms of ease of comprehension this is the exact opposite of (for example) a typical detective novel, in which the reader is familiar with the background – the country, the society, the police force, the general process taking place (and even the principal characters if it's one of a series) – and can therefore focus entirely on the plot and the personalities. In TQT, nothing is familiar!

This may all sound like a terrible mess but in fact I found it fascinating, and read this 330-page story in three intensive sessions. I have already sent off for the next two volumes, and on the basis of this one expect to retain the trilogy for further readings.

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