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The Quantum Thief
Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz, 448 pages

The Quantum Thief
Hannu Rajaniemi
Hannu Rajaniemi is from Finland and has a PhD in String Theory. He has lived, taught and worked in Edinburgh for the last seven years where he was a member of the high profile writing group that also included Hal Duncan and Alan Campbell.

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A review by Rich Horton

Hannu Rajaniemi is a Finnish writer (with a Ph.D. in Physics (string theory) and a day job directing a Maths-oriented think tank). He lives in Scotland. His short fiction has attracted some admiring notice over the past few years. His stories, so far, remind one to an extent of another Scottish resident, Charles Stross, in his bleeding edge of the coming Singularity mode. So his first novel, The Quantum Thief, comes with some expectations -- he's sort of the latest hard SF wonderboy. (Though, wait a minute, didn't we have one last year in Paolo Bacigalupi, whose first novel won a Hugo?) Well, then, does it stack up? I'd say yes, quite remarkably well.

First I'll check off a list of possible influences -- or at least the authors of whom I though while reading the novel. The most obvious is Stross himself, and there are definite points of contact with, say, Accelerando. For me, the next writer I thought of was John C. Wright -- the virtual environments in The Quantum Thief recalled Wright's The Golden Age. The rich, somewhat exotic, Mars, and the emphasis on story, reminded me of Ian McDonald's Ares Express. And some of the overall flavor -- though not the prose -- somehow evoked Jack Vance as well. (And as long as I'm listing here, I might add that Adam Roberts adduced the Michael Moorcock of Dancers at the End of Time, and Adam Whitehead suggested Greg Egan and Scott Lynch.)

Let me quickly add that none of these resemblances are imitation, nor are they evidence of derivativeness. They just hint -- I hope -- at some of the flavor of the book. Which perhaps I ought to get around to actually describing. It's set in a future of our Solar System. We don't hear much about Earth -- something unfortunate presumably happened there. Most of the novel is set on Mars, in a moving city, the Oubliette, that seems to be the only inhabitable part of that planet, after the terraforming effort was sabotaged. There are also people living in habitats in the Outer System. There are gods to be worshipped, who seem possibly to be posthumans -- and who "evolved" from gamers in a sense.

To the plot, Jean le Flambeur is a thief. As the novel opens, he is sprung from a space-based prison by Mieli, an Oortian woman who hopes to get her lover back by serving a certain goddess -- and the service now requested is to have Jean steal something. And that requires a trip to the Oubliette on Mars, where Jean apparently once lived under a different name, and betrayed a woman, and hid something that Mieli's employer wants.

In the Oubliette we follow a young man named Isidore Beautrelet. He is a detective, a protege of the Gentleman, one of several mysterious "tzaddiks" who try to maintain social order on Mars. Isidore has a girlfriend, Pixil, who lives in the zoku colony, an enclave of refugees from the Protocol War. His own society, Oubliette society, is an intriguing construct, one of the best things about the book. Citizens maintain constantly varying levels of privacy, and live in sort of virtual environments based on what they choose to see and what their neighbors choose to reveal. This society is an outgrowth of a revolution against a past King, and against a previous society apparently built on the backs of enslaved "gogols," i.e. "dead souls," or copies of people's brain states set to work. The scutwork in the Oubliette, instead, is done by people who have run out of their currency, time: when one runs out of time, one goes "quiet" and spends some decades occupying constructed bodies that do maintenance work of various kinds. At any rate, Isidore is soon hired by a very rich young man who has been warned that the famous thief Jean le Flambeur will steal something of his at his "carpe diem" party.

All is set up, then -- our heroes are on a collision course. And the novel rollicks forth -- it's a very fast, exciting, read, immensely fun. There are plenty of secrets to unravel -- about Jean's past, about Mieli's employer's true goals, about Mars's history, about Isidore himself. There are plenty of twists, which don't come off as cheats, indeed which make sense. The depth of the SFnal invention is remarkable -- I haven't mentioned The Great Common Task, or the phoboi, or the various examples of future art (involving things like clocks, and houses, and chocolate), or the AI ship, or exomemory. Especially early on, the book can be paradoxically dense reading: even as the action and interest level are consistently high, there is a lot of incluing to unpack, some of which doesn't become clear for some time, some of which I'm not sure I ever fully understood. But all that adds to the fun.

This is the best first novel of 2010 (that I've seen), and indeed clearly one of the best SF novels of the year. Rajaniemi has quite successfully met the expectations his short work had raised.

Copyright © 2010 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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