The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
The reading group met at the North Village Library on July 3 to discuss Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. Billed as the first in a trilogy, it was published in 2010 and The Fractal Prince is scheduled for next September. The author is a Finn with a PhD in mathematical physics. This first novel received many laudatory reviews. The comments of the ten members at the meeting, however, were extremely varied.
The tale begins with Jean le Flambeur, a famous “post human” thief and mind manipulator, although there are several viewpoint characters in this extremely complex story. Jean is in a sort of virtual prison where he is condemned to a daily gun duel with himself which he always loses. The goal is to work out a way to cooperate with himself—a sort of virtual prisoners’ dilemma—but it is clear that this will never happen. Then he is broken loose by Mieli and her flirtatious spaceship Perhonen. It gets more complicated from there, with a sort of embedded detective story and countless variations of highly technical mind- and memory-sharing ideas. Much of the action takes place in “the Oubliette,” a virtual place inhabited by a number of races/interest groups. One of the features of the Oubliette is that time really is money.) The terminology is complex and some members advocated looking up the glossary in Wikipedia before actually trying to read the book. Suffice it to say that Jean has stored a number of parts of himself in different places and needs to somehow get them back in order to carry out his mission from Mieli and her bosses.
All 10 present had started the book and 5 finished it, with three more intending to do so. One member really liked the fact that so much was left unexplained and believed the characters were perfect products of the world, but thought “one might need to be a real SF fan to read it.” Another enjoyed it as a very ambitious and confident and well-written book. He especially liked the detective story in it. In some ways, though, he felt that Jean was a MacGuffin. Another commented that the editor did a marvelous job of translating from Finnish into English but looking up the glossary in advance would have helped. One liked the fact that the book, unlike many, was short enough to be readable. Another read the book through twice and commented that the second reading helped him understand the story.
Others were less complimentary. One tried to like it but couldn’t; because it was not very entertaining in spite of the interesting concepts that were introduced such as alternating life and “quiet” periods. She thought there were a number of contradictions introduced by the conflicting concepts of everything being recorded while still some obvious actions were missed. Another person kept changing her mind about whether the book was interesting or not. She didn’t understand the end at all, and felt there was only one sympathetic character (a “rich guy” named Unruh. In relation to that, another member thought the only sympathetic character was the detective and another liked the spaceship.)
Then there were those who didn’t like the book at all. One who didn’t finish said she might eventually give it another try, but it was a “tough read.” Another read the first 15 pages and reacted like Pratchett’s Foul Old Ron. He didn’t like post-singularity novels. Finally one reader who forced himself to finish the book (admitting that he only scanned the last 30 pages) thought it was overly complex, designed to appeal to an intellectual in-group, and could visualize the author thinking, “I’ve a PhD in string theory and you don’t, nyuk, nyuk.”