Hannu Rajaniemi is smart. As in, he is Mensa smart. With a Ph.D. in string theory and another in mathematics, the founder of a think tank that provides business services using artificial intelligence, he is working with subject matter that just a generation ago was the stuff of science fiction. I almost expect to find him in the pages of Asimov’s Foundation series, using math, statistics, and artificial intelligence to keep civilization alive.
His vision of the future—a place where civilization has filled the solar system, fractured and fought, and still survives—is mind blowing. If you’re looking for loosey goosey Star Wars style space opera, look elsewhere. If you want a story that takes a serious and creative look at the future of our institutions, technology, and cultures, then you’re going to love The Quantum Thief.
Rajaniemi smashes through the world we know and leaps into a universe extrapolated several centuries in the future. We see MMORPG clans developed into highly advanced clans, but still retaining the geeky LARPactivities as a throwback to the past (and our present). There are vigilantes that seem to take their inspiration from Jewish lore as they fight crime behind masks. And virtual social networks—similar to Facebook and Myspace—that are even more integral to life than they are today, and perhaps even more pernicious in their tendencies. There is a master behind the machine, a master that may not be worthy of trust. Social networks are just steps towards a Benthamite panopticon, not unlike John Twelve Hawks’ fledgling vision in The Fourth Realm trilogy.
In addition to a radical and visionary view of the future, Rajaniemi’s novel rests on a fantastic story. The Quantum Thief opens on Jean Le Flambeur, an illustrious and infamous thief and conman, undergoing reform in the Dilemma Prison. He is rescued by Mieli, a savior with a hidden agenda. He soon finds himself in the Oubliette, the Moving City of Mars, hunting down his own missing memories, hidden for a purpose he cannot recall. As he follows the clues he has left to his past, others are also on the hunt, and time is running out, literally. In the Oubliette, a “place of forgetting,” time itself is currency, and citizens live forever. But beneath the surface, plots within plots are unfolding, conspiracies waiting to be exposed.
At 330 pages, The Quantum Thief is not long, but is fulfilling. The prose, while occasionally cryptic, is beautiful. I frequently ran into words and concepts that I could not understand without an appeal to Google and Wikipedia, but they never got in the way of the story. In fact, while I could have read The Quantum Thief without reference to outside material, finding the root meaning of the concepts Rajaniemi inserts in his novel brought another level of understanding and hinted at deep and unspoken back stories to the characters, to history, and to the novel itself. Eventually, each reference is explained; however, he never shoves an information dump down the reader’s throat. The story is as important as the concepts, but we discover it gradually, learning just what we need to know, and no more or less.
The Quantum Thief is a brilliant piece of science fiction, as well as a great novel, and it should rank with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is Harsh Mistress, and Alfred Bester’sThe Stars My Destination as one of the great novels of hard science fiction.
It’s a brilliant debut, and it is only the first of a trilogy. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
[Previously posted at Walker of Worlds]