Saturday 10 January 2015

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

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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