BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A thief agrees to steal a person’s memories in exchange for his freedom.
PROS: Grand-scale ideas; imaginative; interesting extrapolations and plot twists.
CONS: Numerous discontinuous reading sessions killed the story’s pacing, this reader’s understanding, and the overall enjoyment of the story.
BOTTOM LINE: Learn from my mistake – make sure to properly set aside some time for long reading sessions to fully appreciate the brain-bending ideas of this novel.
I’ve long maintained the belief that it’s impossible to objectively review any book, not only because of whatever personal world view and experiences a reader brings to the table, but because of external influences as well. As if to prove my point, life conspired to significantly detract from my reading experience of Hannu Rajaniemi’s much lauded novel, The Quantum Thief, a novel that admittedly includes all the ingredients of a book I would love: big-scale ideas, unique world building and a twisty plot that makes you want to see what happens next.
The Quantum Thief follows master criminal Jean le Flambeur in a post-human world that is barely recognizable from our own. At the novel’s opening, le Flambeur is confined to a Dilemma prison, playing a game for his unseen captors; a game that that involves killing another version of himself. Le Flambeur is rescued by Mieli, a mysterious operative who makes a deal with le Flambeur to pull off a heist in exchange for his freedom. Le Flambeur would be happy enough knowing his true origins, which have apparently been programmed out of him. Mieli’s sentient (and flirty) ship, Perhonen, takes them both to the Oubliette, a moving city of Mars partly reminiscent of the city portrayed in Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World. Meanwhile, in the Oubliette, investigator Isidore Beautrelet is called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier (a profession you don’t see much of in sf), and finds himself on the trail of an arch-criminal, a man not-coincidentally named le Flambeur.
At one point in The Quantum Thief, the titular character says “You have to understand that this is a little strange.” That’s a politely succinct way of encapsulating the experience of reading the beginning parts of this novel. There are numerous, mind-warping ideas introduced to the reader at such a dizzying pace, it’s nearly impossible to stay afloat without one’s full attention. It isn’t until definitions and situations start coalescing that the reader is able to tread the water of understanding — and that’s when the novel moves from being an occasionally frustrating game of hide and seek to a sometimes brilliantly conceived welcome of glad-you-could-make-it-to-the-party.
(Speaking of games, they play a pivotal underpinning to many of the novel concepts, though to be more accurate, it’s their ultimate extrapolated evolution that is part of the book’s main themes. Not only is the theory of games explored with the plot, but the author makes the novel itself an intriguing puzzle by way of its structure. Things happen that don’t make complete sense until pages, sometimes chapters, later — a convention used repeatedly throughout the novel.)
As might be expected in a posthuman setting, the concept of sharable and programmable memories plays prominently in The Quantum Thief. Here, you can pre-configure memories to be forgotten, ensuring a sort of privacy before the fact of knowing. It’s an important ability in this society where privacy is a highly-regarded concept and people walk around with masked appearances triggered by a simple thought. And that’s just one of many ideas being thrown at the reader at a higher-than-average rate. The book’s prominent use of jargon includes terms like tzaddiks, qupting, gevulot, cryptarchs, Sobornost, zoku, gogols, Smartmatter, and any various incarnations of q-tech (q-dots, q-stone, q-suit, q-spiders, etc.).
Therein lays the beginnings to a problematic reading. The rapid introduction of new ideas isn’t a detriment in and of itself, but rather – and this is where the external influences come in – it was hard to keep up given the unfortunate situation of only being able to read this novel in small chunks at any given time. The book itself is relatively short, yet it took me nearly twice as long as any other book to find the time to read it. Imagine watching a half-hour sitcom five minutes at a time spread across a period of two weeks. The story loses continuity, pacing is off, references can be forgotten, and the overall experience is lessened. And so it was with The Quantum Thief. This is a reader fail, not necessarily a book one. I can easily recognize the imagination and work that went into this story, but I cannot honestly say I enjoyed it. Given all the positive reaction this novel received elsewhere, I would love to give this one another go – but only when I’m able to be more attentive.