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The Quantum Thief
Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz paperback £12.99

review by Patrick Hudson

SF and crime fiction have a long and happy association. Asimov wrote SF mysteries, Jack Vance made a good career in the 1950s and 1960s recycling his crime stories into his pulpier SF output, and most of Philip K. Dick's classic works have a thriller plot backbone. More recently, hard SF heavy hitters such as Alastair Reynolds and Richard Morgan have structured their novels around detective stories and revenge thrillers to critical and commercial acclaim.

Crime provides an easy source of drama for SF writers looking for a hook for SF ideas - murder, theft, and revenge are all powerful drivers of plot that we can be reasonably sure will endure across the centuries. The structure of the crime novel also provides a handy road-map of exploration that can accommodate SF ideas - the solution to the mystery will often hinge on the 'novum' of the setting, allowing the author to expound on the social or philosophical connotations of the setting within the confines of an exciting thriller structure.

Hannu Rajaniemi appears to have learned these lessons well. The Quantum Thief builds on the pulpy heist genre, complete with double-crosses, vengeful figures from the past, femmes fatales and the love/ hate rivalry of the cop and the criminal. He effortlessly twists these elements around his SF imagination creating a novel that is as compelling and exciting as it is mind expanding. It's not quite perfect, as we'll see, but it's as close to perfect as I've seen for quite some time.

It opens with the titular thief - Jean le Flambuer - being held in a 'Dilemma Prison' where he is made to re-enact a version of the prisoner's dilemma over and over, where if he 'wins' by co-operating he is duplicated and the game goes on. The idea is that after a sufficient amount of time, the inmates - the various successful 'copies' will gradually evolve an increasing sense of empathy and co-operation and eventually leave the prison as reformed characters.

We don't spend long with this zany idea, though, and within a few pages, he has been broken out of prison by a mysterious benefactor and is on the run, coping immediately with a running dogfight in space featuring intelligent matter spaceships, quantum missiles packed with viral loads to corrupt them and a desperate ploy involving a quarantined virtual universe stored in the thief's computonium body.

All this happens within the first 25 dizzying pages and it's easy to see how this novel might have sold (Internet hype alert!) after the editors at Gollancz read this first chapter. Rajaniemi presents us with an immediately alien future, utterly unlike our world, and yet vivid and comprehensible. The idea of the Dilemma Prison is appealingly sly, played with a light touch here, and with a little bit of a twist of the old irony dial it wouldn't be out of place in a Douglas Adams novel; the subsequent life or death struggle gets the action off to a roaring start, even as we try to come to grips the exotic elements, rooted as it is in a desire to be free and alive that transcends the far out setting.

Of course, Jean's not been freed as a matter of conscience: Jean's liberators demand he hands over the haul of his last great heist in exchange for his freedom, and so the action switches to the gloriously imagined far future Martian city of Oubliette.

Oubliette rests on the back of a kind of artificial turtle that gradually makes its way across the Martian surface. The city itself is inhabited by immortals that each have to periodically undergo periods as what they call 'Quiets', and act as servants of the living with large amounts of their intellects shut down. The Oubliette is reasonably separated from the world of zoku minds and Archon prisons from which Jean escapes, and the hows and whys of this are revealed gradually in the action that follows.

In Oubliette we meet the book's major secondary character, Isidore Beautrelet - an architecture student and an amateur detective. Isidore, who assists the 'tzadikkim' - a band of superheroes (although that word is not used here) - with crime-busting secret identities such as The Voice, The Bishop, The Silence, The Futurist, and Isidore's patron, The Gentleman. Rajaniemi's Mars is a tour de force. It mixes so many wonderful elements and creates a brilliant steam/clockpunky atmosphere of Bonapartian France, holding on to the ideals of the revolution while obviously teetering on the brink of returning to imperial pomp.

However, this brings me to the book's chief weakness: the character of Isidore is much more interesting than the Jean. Isidore is an appealingly romantic sort, motivated by the best intentions. He has ordinary sorts of problems, with his girlfriend and his studies, and we spend a lot of time inside his head as he tries to solve the mysteries and figure out the right thing to do. In contrast, Jean never really feels complete. For a first-person narrator he doesn't spend much time mulling. Or rather when he does he tends to just say "I spent some time mulling it all over looking out the window" without giving us the substance of his thoughts. He focuses - in fact the whole narrative does - very much on the present action, which is fine, and perhaps deflects too much thinking about the various connotations of the setting (some of which I have to say did leave me scratching my head), but doesn't give us much emotional investment in the characters.

He's also said to be witty, charming and omni-competent, but we don't really get to see much of this. The obvious reference point is Melville's famous proto-'new wave' 1955 film Bob Le Flambeur (remade by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief) - about a similarly gallant thief - but Rajaniemi fails to capture this evanescent charismatic quality in Jean. It's a notoriously difficult thing to do, but we needed to see more of him thinking on his feet and more in the way of witty, bantering dialogue. There are elements of this, but it's not enough, and sometimes rather weak.

I also have some problems with the plotting, which relied too heavily on the fairly elemental storytelling hooks of its crime novel genre - the heist; the rivalry of thief and detective; the noir-ish complications, and betrayals of thieves and scoundrels. There aren't many surprising elements here, certainly not in relation to the imaginative setting, but even with this heavy reliance on clichéd plotting, I don't think Rajaniemi gets the pacing quite right. The final chapters, in particular, accelerate the pace to such an extent that the reader is left playing catch up. Too often these twists come before we have really had time to invest in the status quo, and Rajaniemi has to spend time explaining why it's important, rather than establishing in advance that it is important and letting the impact of events fall naturally.

These are more than niggles, but they shouldn't detract from many real pleasures of this book. The setting brims over with delicious sensawunda and originality, and the plotting and characterisation - especially around Isidore - is more than sufficient to give the story a strong forward motion. It's a very promising debut from a writer with an exciting imagination and genuine talent for communicating it. I'm definitely interested in seeing what he does next.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi



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