For a while now, I’ve been eschewing posthumanism. Walking on the wild side of nanotechnology was starting to get too much like science fantasy for my tastes. The Quantum Magician is an exception that I’m happy I made: Derek Künsken’s story of a genetically engineered con artist is delightful, and it explores posthumanist ideas in a way that feels fresh. Although I wouldn’t say any of the characters (not even the protagonist) endeared themselves to me, the plot is enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Full disclosure, I received this through NetGalley! Send me all ur free books.
Belisarius Arjona, or “Bel” to his friends, is a Homo quantus. In this far future universe, humanity has tinkered with genetic engineering, producing such offshoots as the Numen (who created the reviled Puppets), the Tribe of the Mongrel (aka Homo eridanus), and Bel’s own subspecies. The Homo quantus have biological adaptations that help them sense not just magnetic fields but quantum states. Bel is capable of entering a fugue state where his consciousness decoheres, leaving an intellect of pure quantum computation. Bel has parted ways with the project that created him, and he lives on his own, pulling cons for organizations large and small to keep his brain occupied. When a military hires him to con their fleet through a wormhole junction, he has to assemble a rag-tag group of misfits to pull it off. Oh yeah, there’s a “getting the team together” part to this book, and it delivers.
The Quantum Magician actually is rather formulaic when you look at it from a macro view. The thing about formula is that it’s good when it’s used the way Künsken uses it, i.e., to ground the reader in an otherwise unfamiliar setting. The same might be said for something like The Lies of Locke Lamora, wherein Lynch likewise exploits the familiar tropes of a con artist team in order to spin a much more fantastic yarn. That’s what’s happening here: strip away the fancy terminology, the genetic engineering, the AIs who think they are reincarnated saints … and you just have a con. You have a caper. It’s Ocean’s Eleven but in space in the far future and with wormholes and so, so much better as a result.
I love the pacing in particular. The book builds and builds and builds, but it never feels like it’s running slow. Künsken never infodumps. Each chapter is a new scene, a new place, as we follow Bel on his travels to assemble his team, and each visit brings new ideas and new information to the forefront. It’s like a whistle-stop tour, and it hints at this big, rich universe beyond that we don’t get to explore as much as we might want. Leave them wanting more! Finally, after we have the team and the walkthrough and the twists and betrayals, there is an action-packed climax that actually got me worried for a moment about how the con would go. There are a lot of moving parts, and I’m impressed with how Künsken brings everything together.
As I mentioned earlier, the handling of posthumanism is quite well done. Obviously there’s Bel himself. We meet another Homo quantus, old flame Cassandra, whose opinions of their genetic engineering are very different from Bel’s. This juxtaposition is really nice, and it lets us consider the pros and cons of what Bel and Cassandra are capable of doing. It also sets up a romance that is, in my opinion, quite well done because of its subtlety. It’s there, but it isn’t a big focus in the story.
In addition to Bel, each member of the team embodies other posthuman qualities. Some, like Del Casal and Maria, might not be as obvious—they are closer to baseline human, but they live in a posthuman world and are used to interacting with posthumans. William’s conversion into a faux Numen, and his relationship with Gates-15 and the other Numen–obsessed Puppets, takes us down quite a chilling and disturbing rabbithole. Then we have Stills, the Homo eridanus, in whom Künsken explores how far from baseline human we can get and still be “human”. While we learn relatively little about the origins of these projects, who oversees them, etc., it’s clear that in this universe, humanity remains a dynamic, fractured, squabbling civilization that just happens to have some wormhole junctions nowadays. It’s fantastic.
If, like me, you are a sucker for a good con story, you need to check out The Quantum Magician. It’s posthuman SF blended with con artistry, with fun characters, lots of swearing, and perfect pacing and action.