Review: the Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Book Cover for the Quantum Thief The Quantum Thief

The Quantum Thief is a heist story; it’s a reality-warping conspiracy thriller; it’s far-future cyberpunk (were such a thing possible); it’s hard SF, but it isn’t. It may just be my new favourite book, toppling Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny from the spot it has occupied for years innumerable (well, about a decade since I first read it, I reckon). It reminds me why I always used to insist on never reading a book 1 before the whole series was out. I want the next book, and I want it now.

So, first things first… I’m coming to appreciate how important a first line is. It is the most important line in the book. If it’s alright, then no matter, your book sells itself on the merits of the first few paragraphs. If it’s bad, you’re starting in a ditch, you’re already having to work to win the reader back onside. But if it’s good, if it’s great, you’ve got yourself a headstart, the reader is already on your side, you’ve won the first battle. The Quantum Thief has a great first line, it works hard, it makes you think, it gets you interested and involved.

As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk.

As always? The narrator and this warmind shoot each other a lot? And ‘warmind‘, that’s a great word, you know what it is, pretty much, but it is something science fiction, it is something different and interesting. And to shoot each other, violence, collocated with small talk, that’s some contrast there, and it tells you something about the narrator. I already like this book, I already want to know what’s going on, I’m already starting to like the character, and I’m only one line in!

Not content with having one great first line, Hannu Rajaniemi throws a whole bunch of excellent first lines in throughout the book. Any one of them would be brilliant as the opening line of a book, but he has them in such plenty he can spare them just to begin chapters; the titles of which are all excellent and apt too. And speaking of chapters… the structure and pacing of the book, through the chapters and the occasional, brief ‘interludes‘, is spot on, and significant.

Not something I noticed on the way through, but something I can see in retrospect. It makes me wonder what else I missed. I already know I want to read this book again. But I want to read this book again right away. I’m debating whether the next book I read should be this one. I mean, I have so many books I want to read (one of the tainted blessings of working in the industry) – I have the new William Gibson sat next to me; I have a copy of Finch by Jeff Vandermeer, which looks excellent; I’m reliably informed The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson is awesome and I want to get onto that too. There are more. Yet despite all of them, I’m contemplating re-reading this book that I’ve only just finished.

I should explain my opening comments. It’s a good way of talking about this book (how convenient…). So, ‘heist story’, that’s the easy one, it’s called the Quantum Thief, you work it out. But more than a name, this is a great heist story, with everything implicit in that word.

‘Reality-warping conspiracy thriller’… Everything is not as it appears. Who is pulling the strings? Who is pulling their strings? What really happened back then? Can we even trust the things we’ve always taken as true? The Quantum Thief is rife with twists, some obvious, some less so, but all satisfying. There is a lot going on in this book, but with a slight exception near the end I never felt lost or confused.

‘Far-future cyberpunk’? How can that be? Well, it’s more about the feel of the book. It’s full of advanced technology, hyper-advanced in this case, and it’s full of jargon that has evolved with the technology, but the jargon is appropriate and understandable, it works. A big part of cyberpunk, for me, is about extrapolating from current tech and society. I can’t help but see Martian society in the Quantum Thief as a hyper-evolved social network. Everything, everywhere is recorded, from audio and video to thoughts and feelings. What people can see and ‘remember’ is controlled by complex privacy contracts. This applies to present time too, if someone has full privacy up, you only see a haze with a placemarker. This idea is really well thought through and fleshed-out, it is integral to the story.

And ‘hard SF’ (but not)? OK, this is revealing a prejudice of mine, but I don’t like hard SF. So that’s a generalisation, but most prejudices are, aren’t they? I have read some that I enjoyed (early Stephen Baxter?) but that is normally despite the hard elements, I dislike stories which get bogged down in pseudo-science. If the science behind your stardrive worked… why the hell are you writing books? I loved that in M. John Harrison’s Light there are loads of FTL drives that work, even some whose mechanics contradict each other.

The Quantum Thief has a Charles Stross quote on the cover (my copy does anyway)

The next big thing in Hard SF…”

Which would have put me off the book had it not been recommended to me. Now, the hard elements are there, Hannu Rajaniemi has a PHD in string theory after all, but that probably explains why he is so comfortable with these ideas. There are advanced sciences and materials and concepts in there, but you never feel bogged down in explanations, the book still flows really well, it is all a part of the story.

(Interestingly, the one review of mine that ever made it onto a book jacket was on a Charles Stross book, credited to the magazine rather than me, and massively misquoted. But more about that another time…)

The Quantum Thief is a brilliant book. High concepts draped over a classic plot. I can’t wait for more.


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