Book Review: The Quantum Thief

I could make some surface comparisons to another critically-acclaimed debut from years past. Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon is also set some centuries hence, also takes place in a universe of heavy extra-terrestrial human colonization, and also features the altered social, legal, and economic dynamics of a humanity that’s bested mortality. But as excellent as Morgan’s post-cyberpunk whodunit is, comparing the two titles, even favourably, sells The Quantum Thief short.

The speculative fiction/noir crossover is not a new thing, from Jim Butcher’s private eye wizard to Neal Asher’s Agent Cormac to any number of genre-tinged Holmes pastiches. Maybe SF and Chandleresque plots just go together like peanut butter and chocolate. I’m sure not complaining. I devour these things.

But Quantum isn’t just a mystery. It’s a caper. And the thief and hero of this title, with the completely appropriate name of Jean le Flambeur, is more in the vein of Arsene Lupin than Marlowe.

Through alternating chapters with titles like “The Thief and the Goddess”, or “The Detective and the Chocolatier”, we follow the parallel stories of a master criminal, and the one man who may perhaps trap him.

At book’s opening, the titular thief is trapped in a literal prisoner’s dilemma.  Once every hour, for a subjective near-eternity, he picks up a gun and  either shoots or doesn’t shoot. This pseudo-virtual game of betrayal and co-operation with other prisoners is based on a genuine idea from game theory, along with a reasonable application of both conditioned response in psychology and evolutionary algorithms in computer programming. And this is just the first chapter!

In short order he’s been busted out and you don’t think about the dilemma prison for awhile. Yet it’s such a cool idea for something which is more of a prologue to the main story.

The book switches both between and within chapters from the thief’s first-person viewpoint to a third-person focus on his keeper, the mysterious Mieli, and his antagonist, the detective Isidore. Most of the story unfolds on a Martian city which has developed a rather unique privacy-based culture.

The Gevulot is a sensory- and memory-mediating technology which accomplishes everything from blurring out individuals who don’t wish to be noticed or recognized in public, to preventing which experiences an individual is allowed to remember after the fact. Combined with the Exomemory, which stores and encrypts everything anybody ever sees, the result is a world where personal information is both ubiquitous and unattainable.

The social protocols of such a society are weird but plausible. Although intensely private with strangers, citizens of the Oubliette (literally a place of forgetting) are capable of sharing thoughts and emotions directly, by granting access to memories. In fact, everything from street directions to meeting plans are frequently shared in the form of a co-memory, rather than words.

I haven’t even mentioned the other unique aspect about life on Mars. The only currency that matters is time. Everything from a cab ride to a valuable work of art is measured in kilo- or megaseconds. What happens when somebody runs out of time? They drop dead, wake up in a robot slave body, and spend a few years earning back the time to rejoin the human world.

The ideas are dense in this book, and the more you know about both the SF tropes and the actual science he extrapolates from, the more you can appreciate just how clever and thoughtful this first-timer’s writing is. But first and foremost, Rajaniemi always manages to keep moving the plot forward. It’s like fractal bonus material: read between the lines and these subtle throwaway references lead to deeper and more intricate implications, but gloss over them and the big picture remains intact.

(Another thing I like about this book is that the base science is fairly accurate: Flambeur literally is a quantum thief — by which I mean he commits quantum theft, not that he is himself a quantum object, although, in the dilemma prison, that’s arguably true as well.)

By the time I’d gotten a third of a way through the book, I was pretty hooked. Rajaniemi is aware of and respects his genre tropes, but there’s still so much in the world-building of this novel that seems, near as I can tell, wholly new. And there’s something refreshing about a future that isn’t just the American culture, redux. Who ever heard of looking to Provence for inspiration when imagining 25th-century Martian society? Apparently only a Fin living in Edinburgh.

(Tor, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review

Tuesday Links (09/18/12)

The Cheapest Generation: “Why Millennials aren’t buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy.”

The Batman: The Animated Series Rewatch: “1992 was also the year Batman Returns premiered and the influence of the Tim Burton Batman movies is present throughout the series, especially in the music, the setting, and the general atmosphere of the show. The creators of the show fused that sensibility with an animation style inspired by the Max Fleisher Superman cartoons of the 1940s (which, if you haven’t seen, I highly recommend) to create a style they referred to as ‘dark deco.'”

Tuesday Links (09/11/12)

Dinosaur Comics: Let’s rap about salt, indeed.

Hugo Winners Announced: With links to one or two of the winning stories.

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees (audio): By the winner of “Best New Writer”, E. Lily Yu.

The Transfiguration of Maria Luisa Ortega (audio): Also by Yu. Why not see what all the fuss is about with this rising star?

Tuesday Links (09/04/12)

Benedict Cumberbatch in a spot of bother over CBS’ Elementary: “Despite the fact that the upcoming CBS show Elementary went to the trouble of making Watson an Asian-American woman and therefore is totally different, the cast and crew of the BBC’s Sherlock continue to express their suspicion that the network is attempting to copy their own modern Sherlock Holmes show, simply because CBS tried to copy their own modern Sherlock Holmes show.

Farmers are dealing with corn shortages by feeding their cows candy instead: Yep.

What If Films Had Kept Their Working Titles?: Movie posters altered appropriately.

Care2 Blog Weekly Roundup (09/01/12)

The site is undergoing some changes, which will also affect the type and frequency of writing I’ll be able to do there. Of course, it’s been months since I’ve done much writing of all other than a minimal amount of assigned work. I’ve been passive rather than proactive, in other words.

However, I had a single, unexpected day off from work, and was able to get a few articles in under the wire, before the implementation of the new schedule, and here they are.

Sea Lions or Salmon: Which Protectee to Protect?

Wild Gene Boosts Rice Yield, Feeds World?

We’ve Already Used Up Earth’s Resources for 2012

Russians Rushing to Arctic Drill Sites