The Quantum Thief

The Quantum Thief
Hannu Rajaniemi

Today’s challenge: Finland to supernatural Japanese bath houses in seven steps or less, and five countries or more. Can I do it? (Left unasked: Does anyone care?) We start with Hannu Rajaniemi, a fine Finnish author, and, according to his About the Author page, a doer of a bunch of other things as well. Raj, because Rajaniemi is far too complicated to type without using a macro, lives in Scotland, where he wrote The Quantum Thief. This story is apparently heavily influenced by the tales of Arsene Lupin, the gentleman thief of countless French tales. Arsene Lupin is the model for Lupin III, an anime institution. Arguably the best Lupin III movie, The Castle of Cagliostro, was directed by a young Miyazaki Hayao, before he became a god of animation. Miyazaki’s best known work here in the US is, of course, the Oscar winning Spirited Away, which is a tale of a young girl lost in a bath house of the gods. Everyone may now applaud.

I didn’t actually know about this whole Arsene Lupin thing, though I think I once read his name in connection with Lupin III, until I read this quick review. That triggered a brief conversation in the comments, which in turn led to the above paragraph. As I said, I haven’t read Arsene Lupin, so I don’t feel qualified to elaborate on the connection, but it seems like something I should check out if I really want to make sense of Raj’s book. This is not to say that The Quantum Thief isn’t all kinds of enjoyable without knowing about Lupin. It reminded me a bit of the Hyperion books: great stuff on their own, but apparently that much more enjoyable for those who know their Keats. I don’t, of course, so I missed a layer to those books, just like I’m missing a layer of The Quantum Thief. I suppose it’s a bit like sushi without wasabi. All the basics are there and it’s still delicious, but missing just a tiny bit of fun.

On to the book. Thief is a bit of an anomaly, a far future Solar System setting. For whatever reason, Raj decided to keep everything close to home, but with insane levels of technology. This isn’t good or bad, but it was a bit of a surprise, since FTL is generally considered part of The Future. Of course, it could just have easily been somewhere else in the galaxy, considering that pretty much everything is unrecognizable, but Raj is spared the trouble of creating a new set of planets, laws of physics, etc., by just putting things on Mars. This is not your father’s Barsoom, though. Everything happens in a moving city, carried on the shoulders of “Atlas Quiets,” altered humans who cart the city around the planet to escape the depredations of the phoboi. Inside the city, everyone maintains privacy settings on themselves that don’t just cover data, but cover people; so much that, if someone’s privacy settings are strict enough, others can’t even see that person. Conversation is carried on by exchanging memories and public keys. The city is a wild and memorable creation.

“Wild and memorable” is a good way to describe the book as a whole. I won’t be so dense as to divide all SF into two groups, but I do want to propose an axis on which to assess the genre. At one pole is a serious realism. This would include a lot of Hard SF of course, but is also many near future stories. Theme is more important than place, though, as it includes anything that takes a clinical look at humanity, its ethics or problems, or the issues we will likely face moving forward. On the other pole are the books that use SF as a jumping off point for flights of fancy, roller coaster rides of almost unimaginable technology, exotic planets and aliens, or stories that could only happen when things are a bit unlike today. This is not quite the line between, say, Hard SF and space opera, for example, but more of tone and intent. Larry Niven’s Known Space is considered Hard SF, but many of the stories ride closer to the Fun Pole. Compare instead CJ Cherryh and Iain M. Banks, whose books are both often far future, but couldn’t be more different.

Thief is, for those that haven’t already guessed, also squarely near the Fun Pole. The first quarter or so of the book had a noticeable whiff of Banks about it, as he is kind of the dean of zany UK SF, but Raj manages to make his creation his own by the end. Despite the whirling mayhem, there is a core of humanity at the center of the tale, as our irrepressible thief slowly comes to terms with who and what he is. Even at its heaviest though, the book remains off-beat, with the ever present and utterly unconventional Martian society, the zoku, a tribe that could arise from severe inbreeding between World of Warcraft addicts and Japanese otaku, and the mysterious semi-divine entities who pull the puppet strings throughout the story. Raj also gets bonus points for not only starting the book with game theory (poly sci represent!), but by specifically name dropping the book that inspired the last paper I ever wrote in grad school. (The Evolution of Cooperation, by Robert Axelrod, for those who really want to know, while the paper was on Japanese diplomacy in the Straits of Malacca. The fun never stops here at Two Dudes!)

The Quantum Thief has been much talked about in the last couple of years, with chances to be on best of lists for both 2010 and 2011. (Staggered publishing schedules on either side of the Atlantic will do that.) It deserves pretty much every good thing said about it. I will admit to not knowing exactly what happened by the end, and losing bits and pieces of the narrative. When its sequel comes out, I will probably have to reread, because it is either too complex or too scattered for me to pick everything up the first time. It is, as books on the Fun Pole tend to be, a brash display of writing virtuosity, rather like a rhapsody by Franz Liszt. It is also possible that, like Liszt, all the technical flash covers up flaws that would be apparent if the book were more sedate. The reader is probably having too much fun to notice, though, and I will never subtract points for grand ambition.

Rating: Sami Hyypia. There aren’t many Finnish football legends to choose from, but Sami also lived in the UK and captained Liverpool for a time.

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