The best science fiction is the sort that goes out of its way to create an intricate, fully realized world that is both exciting to explore as a reader and comments on contemporary society at the same time. To those ends, Quantum Thief is one of the most successful pieces of sci-fi that I’ve ever encountered. The ideas in this book are dense–it’s certainly not a breezy read–but if you hang with it, the payoff is worth the effort.
It does take some hanging with, though. Many of the ideas and even some of the settings are fairly abstract, and it will take a little while fro the reader to get oriented and be able to understand exactly what is happening where. This is because the book is oozing with post-humanism concepts. It opens in a psychic prison of sorts, where a former thief named Jean le Flambeur is faced with the daily dilemma of either killing himself or being killed by a copy of himself. A roguish girl, Mieli, and her slutty spacecraft (bear with me) spring Jean from prison and take him to a city on Mars called the Oubliette, where they plan to pull off a major (and mysterious) heist.
This is where things really open up conceptually. Life on the Oubliette is a blend between the physical and the informational. The Internet permeates everything. Nothing is truly individual or social, but always somewhere in between. To that end, the line between alive and being electronic is similarly blurred (hence the spacecraft with a persona). Denizens are able to adjust the privacy levels of their gevulot (a sort of conflation of their personality and online profile) in different situations and toward different recipients. This alone makes for intriguing reading, as the reliability of characters is contestantly called into question and scrutinized.
It also makes for some compelling action, as we learn that Jean can pull off heists on a quantum level, literally stealing minds and concepts from people, and stashing them somewhere in the intangible cloud between reality and possibility. Indeed, in addition to aiding Mieli in her job, Jean furtively works to reclaim his past identity, which he managed to squirrel away before being imprisoned.
That’s just an amatuerish scratching the surface of some of the conceptual stuff at work in the book, but I’ll leave it at that for fear of further garbling any of Rajaniemi’s great ideas. Needless to say, if you like your sci-fi on the abstract/philosophical side with a dash of the technical, you really ought to read this novel.
Surprisingly enough, this book is also a fairly sound detective novel. The book switches between protagonists, with the second being an Oubliette detective named Isidore. Isidore is working on solving the murder of a wealthy chocolatier, and eventually find himself investigating whatever it is that Mieli and Jean are up to.
If you heard the podcast where I talked about this book (it was months ago, I know), you’ll recall that I was a little down on how all the mystery was panning out. I’m happy to admit that I was wrong in my initial assessment. Like the conceptual stuff, the detective plot takes a bit longer to piece together what fits where than you might expect going in, but once it finds its momentum, a riveting and wholly original heist story unfurls.
This is a very smart and very original novel. It might come on a little heavy for casual readers, or those who prefer their genre books to be at a YA reading level. But for anyone into bona fide speculative science fiction, look no further.