Monday, January 02, 2012

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Science fiction, like most genres, always has a choice: it can be serious or frivolous. If serious, it has a responsibility to present a plausible future [1] and at least hint at how the world got that way. Frivolous SF, on the other hand, has no such need or desire: its worlds must be internally consistent for the length of the story, but that's all. A serious story tries not to damage the known laws of physics too seriously; a frivolous one postulates whatever it needs to in order to keep moving forward.

Serious is not necessary better, or any more worthy, than frivolous; Red Mars is serious, but The Stars My Destination is frivolous. The Foundation Trilogy -- despite being set in a far future -- is deeply serious, while The Martian Chronicles, supposedly a plausible near-future at the time of writing, is entirely frivolous.

And so I'm being entirely descriptive -- though possibly even a little laudatory -- when I describe Hannu Rajaniemi's first SF novel, The Quantum Thief as being a magnificently and intricately frivolous SF story. It's set in a baroque medium-future solar system -- from that limitation, and some of the bafflegab, I believe that Rajaniemi is staying within the bounds of cutting-edge physics as he understands them, though it's far beyond how I understand them -- broken into the usual major inner- and outer-system polities, with humans in various formats from meat-bound traditional through various flavors of biologically and technologically modified up to high-speed post-human downloads. But, even with all that, it's still a caper novel, about the greatest thief of his age being busted out of the most escape-proof prison to return to the scene of one of his greatest crimes to rediscover the pieces of himself he closed off and pull the fabled One Last Heist.

(I'm probably the only one in the world who was reminded of possibly Roger Zelazny's most obscure novel, Bridge of Ashes, which also has a man with anti-social skills needing to unearth the parts of his mind that he tidied away some time ago.)

The thief is Jean le Flambeur; the prison is the Dilemma Prison, an infinite virtual space in which the inmates enact the Prisoner's Dilemma, over and over, out in the coldest depths of the outer system; the agent of his escape is Mieli, a woman with a powerful ship (and equally powerful personal modifications) filled with technology from the Sobornost, a collective of uploaded posthumans; the scene of the crime is a moving city on Mars, the Oubliette, where all citizens control their personal privacy through ubiquitous nanocontrols but are otherwise unmodified, and where Time is the only currency; and what Mieli wants him to steal, primarily, is who Jean was, locked away somehow in that Oubliette.

And, since every Raskolnikov must have a Porfiry, every Valjean a Javert, The Quantum Thief is equally the story of Isidore Beautrelet, a young man of the Oubliette with a talent for investigating crimes and close connections to a secret group of vigilantes with deep suspicions about the Oubliette's supposedly directly democratic governance. Isidore begins by investigating the murder of a chocolatier, but, through his own inquiries and the influence of his girlfriend -- Pixil, the first newly created/born member in centuries of a mildly posthuman zoku clan currently living in the Oubliette after losing a war to the Sobornost in the outer system -- he learns of Jean's arrival, and is hired by a rich man who fears Jean will try to steal from him.

Jean and Isidore's stories twine around each other, usually in alternating chapters, as both pursue their own ends and unravel, separately, the secrets of the Oubliette and its privacy-mad inhabitants. And there is a huge confrontation at the end, as there must be, as those secrets are revealed, a society is rocked to its core, and danger looms for everyone. Rajaniemi keeps up a furious pace throughout Quantum Thief -- this is not a novel for the timid, or for readers who want SF concepts to be explained carefully to them, one at a time -- but still manages to find ever higher gears for that climax.

Lurking mostly quietly in the background throughout The Quantum Thief is the larger question of freedom and independence for all -- or any -- of the minds of the solar system. The Sobornost is huge, ever-more-dominant, and growing -- and it is utterly controlled by the copyclans of the few Founders, with all other minds controlled, ruled, and used as slave labor. The Oubliette is the only place left with physically unmodified humans, and it -- like all of the Martian Moving Cities -- is under constant attack by phoboi, self-replicating machines that want to destroy anything human or human-made. There may be other major posthuman powers in this system -- a solar system is a big place, after all -- but we don't see them in this book; it's just the lurking Sobornost and the small minds that have so far avoided being sucked into it.

Now, I fully expect that Rajaniemi has worked out how our world gets to the state of play in The Quantum Thief -- Jean seems to be from our era, as are the Founders of the Sobornost, who he used to know -- but that backstory is covered with a few evocative terms, like Collapse and Spike, and Earth is notable primarily by its absence from the novel. Perhaps the promised latter two-thirds of this trilogy will flesh out that history, and I'll be forced to move Quantum Thief, retroactively, into the realm of serious SF. But I hope not. It's so much fun that it deserves to be frivolous.

Quantum Thief is a fast-moving, flashy, excitement machine, crammed full of shiny SFnal ideas and turbo-charged by prose that pauses only briefly to illuminate but never stops to fully explain. Rajaniemi is a tremendously confident writer, from the evidence here: he has a million ideas, and throws them as quickly as he can, assuming that his reader will be able to catch them equally well. If you're willing to get up to the speed required, and can hang on for the ride, Quantum Thief is well worth the time, and Rajaniemi well launched as a major new SF writer.

[1] Or alternate present, or alternate past, if you, like me, accept stories like that as "science fiction."

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