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A waste of talent and time
on 12 October 2013
It wasn't the fact that there is no explanation at all of the exceedingly complex back story against which the action unfolds that caused me to dump this book in the waste bin halfway through. I'd worked my way through `The Quantum Thief' which has the same problem, not all that happily, but still enjoyably because Mr Rajamiemi writes very well. You have this vocabulary in both books referring to events, people, societies, technology which is simply thrown at you and you have to surf across it or sink. I have been reading hard SF and Fantasy for many decades and this sort of back story is common. But not to explain it at all is outside my experience and in my view is stupid posturing that detracts from the book. Consider `The Lord of the Rings'. Tolkein had as complex a back story (if less Quantum technology) but took you with him via some explanation en route and by all the Appendices at the end of Volume 3.
Nonetheless, while I consider this approach to be a grave mistake, I could have lived with it. Rather it was an incident half way through that caused me to stop, analyse what was happening and realise I had better things to do. Our hero (probably - uploading and copying of minds makes for some uncertainty here) is tied to a chair in a virtual reality environment and is about to be tortured by an entity that looked like a tiger a page or two before but now has a human aspect (there is no explanation at this point of why this happens). Suddenly by a mechanism which is also not explained our hero turns the tables and triumphs. This is no more than the `with one bound he was free' device used by the writers of Victorian serials. After some thought I decided that the real weakness of this book is the fact that the characters we come to care about are never in serious jeopardy. Rather like the heroes of the Summer blockbuster films aimed at 14 year olds. Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig may be fighting villains on the top of a train about to enter the Channel Tunnel but we watch unmoved because we know they will emerge with no more than a decorative scratch or two.
The reasons for the `lack of jeopardy' in this book are :-
1. A mixture of Virtual Environments and Reality which is so intimate that you lose track of whether what is happening is really happening or not. The only other book I can recall giving up on in the past 20 years was David Mitchell's `Number9Dream' because I felt the author had mixed up dreams and reality too much and had not made it clear which was which. This is 100 times worse.
2. The hard SF quantum technology pervades events but is indistinguishable from magic exactly as Arthur C Clarke said. Whatever the problem a qbit or whatever can solve it.
3. Minds can be copied, stored and downloaded as required. If you lose your hero you can get another copy in an instant. The book does try to get round this by emphasising that the new copy is a different person but I don't think that works.
A pity because Mr Rajaniemi has real talent. Perhaps he needs to study the handling of complex back stories by masters like Tolkein, Frank Herbert (in the first book of the Dune series only) or CJ Cherryh to get the balance right. Certainly I will not be coming back for more.