A long time ago I read The Dervish House and commented that it hacked my brain, and that’s what I feel like Hannu Rajaniemi is trying to do with The Quantum Thief. This is posthumanist SF that reimagines the limitations and extent of a human’s personal narrative in a very extreme, mind-bending way. I don’t entirely understand what’s happening here, and that is kind of the point. Rajaniemi walks an extremely fine line between avoiding infodumps and exposition and entirely losing the reader—but it’s a line he walks well, and if you don’t mind that sort of thing, then this book is very enjoyable.
The story begins with a prison break and ends with a nearly apocalyptic scenario on Mars. Jean le Flambeur is/was a renowned, brilliant thief. He is trapped in a “Dilemma Prison”, a posthuman scenario where one literally acts out the Prisoner’s Dilemma all day, every day, earning points to avoid total, permanent oblivion. Mieli breaks Jean out of this prison so he can do a job for her—but first they need to retrieve some of his identity, which he left behind in memories on the Oubliette, a society in Mars that is ultra concerned about privacy and memory. There, Jean and Mieli get embroiled in local politics, discovering that Jean has a much more intimate connection to the history of the Oubliette than he’d like to admit.
The core of The Quantum Thief, as with a lot of great science fiction, is a question of identity. What makes you, you? Is it your body? Because this is a world where your body is mutable and in flux. Mieli’s body is enhanced from “baseline” with tech from the Sobornost, one of the many posthuman factions descended from baseline humanity. She constructs a similar body for the Jean she breaks out of prison—one that she ultimately has “root access” over. This is a world where nanotech has become q-tech—technology on the quantum level, “q dot” atoms that one can manipulate with the mind. And those human minds run as software on wetware platforms, able to become enhanced (computationally or physically) on demand. I haven’t even touched on the zoku or the citizens of the Oubliette yet!
Don’t worry about feeling overwhelmed, though. You will be way past overwhelmed. In some ways I’m reminded of William Gibson’s approach to cyberpunk stories: just toss the reader in the deep end, and let them figure out all these new terms. Whether it’s jacking and cyberspace or gevulot and spime, SF is replete with a plethora of new vocabulary. It isn’t what one invents that’s important: it’s how one uses it. Rajaniemi deploys this vocabulary expertly to make one feel like the alien visitor to this place. It reminds me a little of how Ursula K. Le Guin uses words, particularly in her Hainish stories, although Rajaniemi has obviously amped it up to a level that is, perhaps, unsustainable depending on your point of view.
Honestly, the actual plot of The Quantum Thief is so-so. It was hard for me to care all that much about Jean’s personal quest to recover his lost self, because I didn’t know that lost self, nor do we spend much time getting to know this Jean before he gets involved in these quagmire of quantum identities. Similarly, Mieli is mostly a cipher. We’re given to understand she has bargained with an entity farther up the posthuman chain of being, whom we only know for most of the book as “the pellegrini”, and that she hopes to be reunited with a lover one day. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Rajaniemi’s distaste for exposition extends to both personal and social backstories, and that makes for a slightly less rich reading experience. I don’t necessarily expect a far-future SF author to explain how their tech works—that’s just asking for disappointing technobabble. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for learning more about the history of a society and how it came to be.
The Quantum Thief is a gorgeous tapestry of science fictional literature. It’s the kind of thing you have to want to revel in and work at—but it doesn’t act all stuffy and stuck up and pretend to be better than other books for all of that. It is, at its heart, a story of detectives and criminals and rebels and thieves; it is pulp wrapped in words and philosophy, kind of making it the best of both worlds. Yes, a great deal of it will be incomprehensible, at least for a while. If that isn’t your cup of tea, you should probably just avoid this book—if you read the first chapter, or even the first page, and feel lost, it won’t get that much better. And that’s OK. If you are all right with skimming along the surface of this pond, plunging only occasionally into its depths and then coming back up for air, then you are in for a treat.