Allan Dyen-Shapiro's Reviews > The Quantum Thief

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
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's review
Jun 20, 2012

really liked it
Read in June, 2012

To say that this book is hard to follow is an understatement. The author employs the approach of virtually never offering the reader backstory or any other sort of explanation. When a word is used many times, it eventually becomes clear what he means. SPOILER ALERT!!!!

He draws some words from science--sometimes they mean roughly what they do as science, sometimes it's a fantastical elaboration. Sometimes words are drawn from other languages. It really helps if you know the original meanings of these words. The first part would be near incomprehensible if you didn't understand that the word gevulot is Hebrew for borders--this is the level of protocol-based permissions that every interpersonal interaction involves. Opening ones gevulot to another exposes ones secrets and allows one to share co-memory. There is also an exomemory, a collective memory of the entire planet. And that's being falsified by one of the races of superhumans--the Archons. Their defeated enemies in the Protocol Wars--the zukos, posthumans that evolved from an Earth gaming society, have set up tzaddikim (it really helps to realize that's Hebrew for righteous and wise ones) to try to run the affairs of all the others on the Oubliette--the mobile society on Mars that is all that is left from the failure of terraforming projects and is really an ancient prison (again it helps to realize that the French word for forget is Oublier--the exomemory has been tempored with so the real nature of the society is not apparent).

This information is dribbled out at various times, not being clear until the end of the book. We follow numerous characters--Jean le Flambeur, trapped in a Prisoner's Dilemma-style prison and having hid his memory of who he used to be on Mars from himself, Mieli--a being who sometimes appears with wings and at other times seems humanoid who breaks him out of the prison, her spaceship--sentient, snarky and flirtatious, probably the only character presented in a straightforward fashion, Isidor--a detective who solves mysteries largely for fun and is attracted to Judaism because of its irrationality, Raymonde/the Gentleman--the abandoned ex-lover of Jean, now a tzaddik...

What the hell was this book about? The interlocking patische of stories, all with fascinating use of science fiction tropes--some classic, some novel, the odd societies...

It certainly wasn't suspense, because for suspense to work, the reader has to be following what's going on. That's not a given in this book. It's not a character study, because one doesn't grasp any of the characters well enough to root for them. It's not social criticism--I see no parallels to the real world or its issues.

This book is about the odd world that Rajaniemi has built and the struggle on the part of the reader to follow what's going on. If you like literature as puzzle (and I do, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was fun for me), you'll like this. Rajaniemi said online that this was every idea he could possibly have crammed into a synopsis and then broken back out into a trilogy. This is the first part. Will it all come together and make sense at the end? I don't even pretend to be able to predict.
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