Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief

Cover of Hannu Rajaniemi's The Fractal PrinceI 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 in 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 editing 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 Finn living in Edinburgh.

(Tor, 2012)