Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 30, 2022

String-theorist-turned-novelist captivates with time and Tech conscious sci-fi world

August 8, 2012

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Review by Kellen McGee

While the title, The Quantum Thief, hints that the book may be best enjoyed by the residents of Bloomberg, readers with the patience to wade through the futuristic universe created by Rajaniemi (who ascribes a “show, don’t tell” writing philosophy, almost to a fault) will find a madcap thrill-ride with something in it for everyone at Hopkins.

Set in a futuristic solar system, it reads as though Rajaniemi grafted a few Scientific American articles onto the classic grand theft narrative with a generous amount of gonzo physics and witty characters thrown in for extra credit. Yet, under the tech-gloss, wisecracks, and action sequence thrills, the virtue of the book lies in the humanity poking through into the book’s post-human world.

Though the principal action takes place on a giant, Howl’s-Moving-Castle-like walking city traversing the surface of Mars, every student can relate this society where Time is a currency (the richest people are “milliennaires”) and the staple export of Mars is (fittingly) chocolate.  The Martian society is saturated with (Facebook x 1,000)-like information technology, yet surprisingly, this does not make getting along with girlfriends, solving crimes, or stopping thieves any easier. How could misunderstandings arise when you can, just by thinking, “send” someone a copy of a memory? How can it be so hard to find trustworthy people when you can mentally check the equivalent of someone’s Facebook profile upon meeting them? How can one fight crime when people can change their own privacy-settings and become invisible? How can people still be afraid of death when souls are fully up/downloadable?

Very easily, as it turns out. Rajaniemi’s technology does not solve the basic problems of humanity, it simply re-casts them: panhandlers are replaced by Time-beggars, criminals are replaced with soul-pirates, and death is replaced (for those who have run out of Time) by time spent as a “Quiet”, a gigantic soul-imbued machine performing the mechanic, agricultural, and custodial duties of the moving Martian city.

Because of this, under all of its glamorous tech-finery, and confusing off-world politics, Rajaniemi’s work can still caper through a simple plot from cover to cover. The story revolves around a thief, Jean le Flambeur, who is broken out of prison to steal something for his rescuer’s shadowy “employer”. His rescuer is the highly-attractive but short-tempered female, Mieli, a post-human warrior, complete with a nano-tech-enhanced body with Matrix-like fighting capabilities. She is joined by her amorous spaceship, and they are pursued in their endeavors by the 10-yr old detective, Isidore, (remember, these are Martian years) who is simultaneously attempting to discover the murderer of a renowned Chocolatier, study Architecture at his university, join the tzaddikim vigilantes’ organization, and hold on to his zoku-warrior girlfriend, Pixil.

Though only gamers may immediately appreciate the humor in the fact that the zoku are hyperadvanced humans descended from MMORPG guilds, everyone can chuckle, albeit a little nervously, when the zoku dismiss people who believe in “actual causes” as “meme zombies.” Furthermore, all Mac, Windows, and Linux users can imagine the bloody ferocity of the world’s very recent, and very literal, “protocol wars,” especially when the protocols aren’t just for laptops, they’re for actual people.

The opening of the novel is typical of Rajaniemi’s total-otherworld-immersion and sly humor: The reader meets Le Flambeur doing time in a Dilemma Prison, which game theorists and psychologists will recognize as a combined version of an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma thought experiment and Conway’s Game of Life.  Le Flambeur, and copies of himself, must face the occupants of cells around him with the choice of cooperation or defection, except in this case, defection means shooting your cell neighbor, or getting shot (which comes complete with pain and sensation of dying).

While this work has won numerous awards in sci-fi circles, many reviewers have, in the middle of their justly deserved praise for Rajaniemi, lamented the lack of an “info-dump” in which the obfuscated terminology of the book’s universe is explained. Where the absence of such passages no doubt trips up, and eventually turns away readers who insist on following the book’s minutiae, for every inch that the bar of initiation into this universe is raised, the universe becomes more real. Rajaniemi values and thus saves for the reader little “I get it!” sparks of joy one gets when they figure something out for themselves. For a few afternoons’ worth of a wild, techno-joyride, this critic and others agree that this book, the first of a promised trilogy from Rajaniemi, is a fantastic debut for the Ph.D. string-theorist – turned-sci-fi writer, and well worth the time to read.

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