Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

When we first meet space thief Jean le Flambeur he's in prison, forced to play endless versions of the prisoner's dilemma against a fellow prisoner who turns out to be himself. Each time he fails to co-operate, the prison rewrites a bit of his memory and makes him play again, trying to force-evolve him into a more sociable citizen. It's a strange and brilliant idea, and just the start of the story.

The Quantum Thief (2010) creates an extraordinary future, at the heart of which is the wheeze that, thanks to technological advances, memories live on after bodies die. Bodies die exactly on schedule according to a person's allotted duration (sort of like in Logan's Run). The 'dead' souls are then transferred to other, less human bodies, to work as slaves for an allotted time, before returning to life. As a result, time is currency; you pay bills in seconds.

Hannu Rajaniemi constructs a rich and complex future. In fact, I sometimes found myself a bit lost. Science fiction often requires us to plunge into an environment we don't understand on the promise that we'll make more sense of it as the story goes on. We pick up clues and learn how things work, which can be very satisfying. But it can also be hard work.

Rajaniemi has a PhD in mathematical physics and this is unabashedly 'hard' sci-fi. There's lots on quantum states and encryption, and at times I couldn't quite keep up with the story. For this poor arts graduate, 'hard' sf might as well mean 'heavy-going', with the same kind of fascination for technology and hardware you get in war fiction, where it's all statistics of weapons and vehicles.

That's a shame because the story is, at heart, a classic heist - Jean using deft tricks and sleights of hand to keep one step ahead of the detective on his trail. But, like the detective, I often found myself baffled by what was going on, only realising later what Jean had managed to achieve. The effect was to distance me from the action; I didn't feel for the characters.

It doesn't help that the book is so humourless. And I'm not sure it quite delivers on its early promise. The plot ultimately hangs on some sci-fi horcruxes, and the last big battle falls rather flatly. In a world where few people ever really die, it's difficult to feel any great fear for people involved. Rajaniemi's future is constructed so robustly I didn't feel enough was at stake.

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