on 5 October 2010
I think this is likely to become a sci-fi classic. Considering that it's also the first published work by Hannu Rajaniemi, that is pretty impressive.
I have to admit that, for the first chapter or so, I thought this was just going to be another techno-geek gadgetfest but I was definitely wrong. Like another reviewer, I found the start pretty confusing as the author does not give you much of a chance to get to grips with his terminology, with the result that I was left floundering about but hanging in there; a feeling I'm used to after reading a lot of Tricia Sullivan and C J Cherryh. And, like those writers, if you bear with it long enough, it starts to come together and repays the effort with interest.
Along the way, the story pays it's dues to it's sci-fi ancestors. I mean, the Quantum Thief - Jean le Flambeur - really reminds me of Harry Harrison's 'Stainless Steel Rat', while other characters, and even whole scenes, bring to mind Alfred Bester's 'Tiger! Tiger!' and 'The Demolished Man'.
However, even the technology has literary and classical references - 'Gogol' becomes a noun to describe disembodied minds, and that gives rise to 'gogol pirates' as a major theme within the story; the control of privacy and access to memory is central - thus the architecture of the great moving Martian city has classical Greek 'agoras' or public 'places of assembly' built in to it; the use of 'exomemory' brings to mind (but in a rather more subtle way) Richard Morgan's 'Altered Carbon'; and, of course, there is the nice 'double entendre' of the 'Oubliette' itself. All this, though, comes together in a truly original world.
So, a very well put together world - not just the tech but the whole back story, as we get hints and bits of history of a Kingdom, a Revolution. Then, besides Jean le Flambeur, there is a whole zoo of exotic characters - the multi-talented Raymonde (who reminded me somehow of Robin Wednesbury), Mieli and her ship Perhonen, Isidore the brilliant young detective and his girlfriend Pixil from a 'zoku' tribe of virtual game players, and the millenniaire Unruh (when Time is a currency, how else to describe the mega-rich?). The variety of characters is also reflected in the narrative - alternating between Jean (first person narrative), Mieli (third person), Isidore (third person) - and the chapter structure too as, occasionally, the chapters are interrupted by 'Interludes'.
That's the tech, the characters and the story structure. But that's just the start. The story itself is wonderful, multi-layered, mind-expanding stuff. It starts off straight-forwardly enough - a prison break for the thief, a mission or perhaps commission, and off he goes. But the way it develops is extraordinary. It becomes clear that all the technology is not simply 'for show' but is central to not just the workings of the world but also to the identities of the characters. The story becomes a shifting palimpsest of memories and all those feelings of Alice-like disorientation from the beginning of the book return. Hints of realities within realities, virtual and otherwise, leave plenty of room for Hannu Rajaniemi to further investigate his remarkable world.
On top of all that, it is really well written. There are a (very) few odd clunky bits but overall the story flows really well, the imagery is strong, original and powerful.
As I said, I think this is destined to be recognised as a sci-fi classic.
on 11 February 2012
I agree with one of the other posters; this will probably become a classic. It is well written and highly imaginative, creating an original and yet oddly familiar future setting. Original in that it is refreshingly different to the well trodden space opera genre and is full of new ideas. True they are not all explained in detail and the author could have easily made the book 100-150 pages longer - but would it have been better? I'm not sure it would have been. It was refreshing to not have things explained in detail, scenes set , histories transcribed etc and to be catapulted into this strange and yet in some ways classic ie Martian setting - an almost Golden Age 1950's feel at times! It did feel slightly fragile now and then - but better that than the ponderous doorstops that get churned out all too often in this genre - and it has a welcome and subtle light touch that sets it apart from it's rivals. 4 or 5 stars? I'll give it 4 because I think he can get even better!
The best sci-fi I've read since early Banks' novels. I very much look forward to the next.
on 2 October 2010
I've never been one for appendices. Laborious timelines, glossaries of characters and indexes of pivotal events - they've always felt like laziness to me; desperate forget-me-nots crafted by writers either incapable or unwilling to streamline pertinent information. I can understand the place of such things in, say, part six of some epic fantasy saga, but even then I'll give them the cold shoulder. I'm of the opinion that a book should communicate all necessary knowledge in the body of its narrative. More so, in fact, in the case of the aforementioned multi-volume tomes. For my money, an author should be accommodating, both of new readers and those who've waited a period of years for the next installment of their favourite series. If not - if the body of a book isn't approachable in itself - such appendices are little better than a trick to lure in easy prey and obfuscate that novel's oversight.
Tell you what, though: all my complaints aside, had there been some sort of index, I would have gladly (and repeatedly) referred to it during the mind-boggling first third of The Quantum Thief. Finnish debut author Hannu Rajaniemi does not condescend to explain much of anything in the opening act of his first novel. Nor, indeed, are convenient infodumps forthcoming in the remainder. There is a great swathe of races to get to know - Tzaddikim, Quiet, zoku and Sobornost - not to mention a wealth of initially baffling concepts to wrap your head around, from gevulots and spimescapes to Watches and agoras. The tomorrow's world of The Quantum Thief is one in motion from the get-go; its inexorable forward motion will fluster even the most grizzled veteran of hard science fiction, and there's hardly a chance to catch your breath.
We come upon Jean le Flambeur in the Dillemma prison, facing off against himself in an infinite iteration of game-theory. The titular thief comes a cropper, the bullet of his mirror-image opponent "an ice-cream headache, burrowing into my skull... and then things stop making sense." An apparent angel comes to his aid, spiriting Jean away to her sleek spidership, Perhonen, but Mieli (mind in Finnish) has only rescued the thief to imprison him once more. Before he can even begin to understand his latest captor, however, the ship comes under attack: the Archon guards want their prisoner back. But Jean, still quick on his toes despite his years of in the "diamond donut," eats the nanomissile lodged in Perhonon's sapphire skin - of course he does! - and all is well again.
Then there's the Tzaddikim detective, Isidore Beautrelet, whose indefatigable passion for solving mysteries makes him a tolerable curiosity to his zoku partner, Pixil - that is when she's not out on a raid astride her epic mount, Cyndra, "a plump, pink-haired elf." Isidore will have a vital part to play in the Mars-shattering events that Jean and Mieli set in motion. At the moment, however, he's up to his neck in chocolate: death by chocolate, to be precise.
The curious murder of a renowned chocolatier and Isidore's Columbo-esque unravelling of the otherworldly mechanics of it represent the first real opportunity for readers to come to grips with the various peoples and ideas of The Quantum Thief. Much of the action therein takes place on the Oubliette, a moving Martian city populated by settlers who must earn back their humanity as insect-like labourers, whereupon the currency for all things is time: a trip in a spidercab, a child to call your own or food from the fabbers costs so many megaseconds. And that isn't even the half of it. Rajaniemi has crafted a rich and far-flung futurescape full of insight and invention. He doesn't so much lay it out for us whole cloth as litter the lustrous landscape with clues for readers to draw inference from.
And appendices be damned, I wouldn't have had it any other way.
What begins as a sense of bafflement takes shape over the course of The Quantum Thief as a discovery waiting to be had, a mindfield of singular experiences yours for the taking. Interludes which seem appropos of nothing to begin with gradually enmesh with the two-pronged narrative the thief and the detective share; the world, the people, the ideas, all so utterly other at first, come together like the crystalline threads of Mieli's spidership during combat: once an expansive solar web, "the scattered modules pull themselves... along their tethers and fuse together into a tight, hard cone."
Coming from an author with a PhD in string theory, it's no surprise, I suppose, that The Quantum Thief is so intelligent as to appear intimidating, and though it takes a while to orient yourself to Rajaniemi's particular rhythm, his debut comes together piece by piece in the mode of M. John Harrison's Light - and it's every bit the equal of that modern-day genre masterpiece. Beneath the science, you see, beneath the staggering speculative wonder of it all, Hannu Rajaniemi has a knack for spare, no-nonsense storytelling that approaches the poetic at times. The Quantum Thief is a revelation, in the end, and make no mistake: we have here the sci-fi debut of 2010.
Although I would consider myself a fan of science fiction films and fiction, I only read a handful of science fiction novels a year. Around five or so, and those I've liked best in recent years are by writers like Ian MacDonald, Richard Morgan, and Connie Willis. I was drawn to this one partly due to the effusive critical reception it seemed to be getting, and partly because the plot summary invoked a kind of swashbuckling rogue at the center of the plot, and I love rogues as protagonists (think Flashman, think Captain Blood, think the Grey Mouser). So I thought I'd make this one of my few science fiction books of the year -- big mistake.
To be sure, this debut is chock full of interesting ideas, and yet it's entirely unentertaining -- I can't recall the last book that I fell asleep to so many times. The protagonists barely register as characters, and since the consciousness of individuals exist in the book in various iterations of uploads, restores, and copies, it's even harder to become invested in any character's story or development. Meanwhile, the plot is an entirely convoluted caper that is both (A) exceedingly hard to decipher, and (B) ultimately kind of meaningless. The best precis of the book comes from one character's summation on page 293: "An interplanetary thief is building a picotech machine out of the city itself while the cyptarchs take over people's minds to try to destroy the zoku colony to stop the tzaddikim from breaking their power."
Uh...yeah... Maybe part of my problem is that I don't have much of a head for science, and all the stuff in this book about quantum particles and whatnot all just flies over my head. There's a whole ton of singularity, AI, social networking, privacy theories and ideas pumped up on steroids throughout. Sometimes these are really interesting (such as the concept that the Martian economy revolves around time, and once a person's time is all gone, they are turned into a worker drone for a number of years), but most just rattled past me at breakneck speed. I suppose that's the main problem I had -- so many elements were so conceptual that I had a very hard time picturing the setting, the action, and the people in my head. I mean, I generally have no problem with imagination (heck, I played paper and pencil RPGs for a solid 15 years of my life), but this book just never came alive in my head.
So while I really liked concepts such as the Martian social system of perception and memory sharing (you can instinctively fine tune your privacy settings per the situation, you can share a memory you've had with another person or group of people), I never found any stakes to make me care about what was going on. One reviewer really hit the nail on the head by calling it "the most tediously imaginative book in history" -- I'm not sure I would say "in history", but it's certainly the most tediously imaginative book I've read this year. Way too much technobabble and not enough people to care about.
on 18 October 2012
This is great Hard-Core Sci-Fi, somewhat of a rarity these days. While reading I found myself trying to compare the authors style with other greats of the Genre. There are elements of Phillip K. Dick, William Gibson, Harry Harrisson and a bit of Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert thrown in. If the author ever reads this I hope he doe not take offence at these comparisons, they are certainly meant as a compliment! And the book itself is unique; I could not imagine any one of the fore-mentioned ever writing this.
Like others, the start of the book is a bit of a slog with science-y sounding buzzwords aplenty and names introduced with no history. As the story develops you gradually grasp some of the universe the author is trying to create, but even by the end I felt there were big gaps in my knowledge. It left a sort of empty feeling, '... what did this mean?', '... how are this group related to that group?' sort of questions.
But persevere and you end up with an excellent sci-fi/cyberpunk novel. The pace starts off slow and gentle but imperceptibly increases to the point where I was reading for two minutes in the car before going into work (sometimes longer much the annoyance of my boss!) just to see what happends next. The characters evolve at the same pace as the novel, becoming fuller and more three-dimensional as the novel progresses. Like another reviewer, I think this will in time become a classic.
But, being a physicist, I had to knock off a star for the bad science in some places, being a physicist. In places it seems the author knows a lot of science buzz-words but without enough understanding to make good use of them. I think with a little more homework, the next novel (or the one after since I think there is already a sequel) could get 5*. I know science fiction has to push the limits of what we know at the moment (the intertia-less drive of EE Doc Smith), but when you fly in the case of current understanding you are on dodgy ground and risk alienating some of your audience. Hopefully with the money he recieves he can afford a trip to CERN or the NIF where I am sure there will be people only too pleased to correct his mistakes.
on 20 February 2012
In the light of the current trend for all things Scandinavian, I suppose one should expect that Finnish science fiction would be received with rave reviews. On the basis of my having mostly enjoyed one of the author's short stories in the Engineering Infinity anthology, I decided to dip my toe cautiously into a full length novel. Did I find Mankell's atmospheric gloom & introspection, Larson's erudite narrative, or the pace & plot twists of The Killing?
No. The first seventy pages or so is a maelstrom of unfettered, undisciplined creativity and perhaps the most incomprehensible shambles since Aldiss' Report on Probability A. While the author is evidently highly imaginative, the novel is mired in a surfeit of madeupnameium and some very avant-garde grammar. The narrative flits about like a kitten on speed while the unfortunate reader is continually bombarded with new characters, concepts and unpronounceable names. The whole thing just gave me a headache and I almost gave up.
However, the narrative does eventually settle down and once I'd established a loose understanding of the main characters and the various factions I found that I was really rather enjoying it. It rolls along at a decent pace and while, as other reviewers have commented, there are parallels with the Stainless Steel Rat inasmuch as the main protagonist is a high-tech thief, I'm afraid it doesn't have Harrison's wit or panache.
However (again), in the final fifty pages the novel slips back into headache inducing confusion and while I think I have a vague grasp on what happened I'm not sure I understand.
This is to science fiction what Picasso's cubism is to portraiture; I'm sure it's very clever but I don't really know what I'm looking at. To be fair though, I did quite enjoy the `journey' as they say and I may be tempted to read the author's next offering if he calms down a bit.
on 21 March 2012
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand this book is packed with some brilliant ideas that can fill many books on what future could hold for humankind. What if we are no longer bound by our mortal bodies and that we can simply live forever by uploading our minds and spreading our consciousness across the galaxy? What if we can share our memories and our most intimate information with others as simply as sending an instant message?
However on the other hand, I felt these ideas are wrapped in what is essentially a weak story, one where I never cared about the characters at all. At certain points, the book has the reader buried in so many unfamiliar concepts and terminologies that makes identifying with the characters less of a concern. Maybe the author wanted to keep the story short and snappy and decided to sacrifice depth for a fast-moving pace?
The problem is that the story doesn't guide you by the hand but rather expect you to figure out everything by yourself. I come from a science background so the concepts weren't that hard for me to figure out but at times you just feel so overwhelmed and lost that you want to give up. Luckily there is also a glossary available on Wikipedia. Even with the glossary at hand, I didn't have much idea of what was happening in the story until I was in the final chapters when everything finally clicked and realised what a clever ending this is. I felt my "Eureka" moment came too late and spoiled my enjoyment of the story.
This is a book that will definitely benefit from rereading. By the second or third time, you will already be familiar enough with the concepts and can just focus tackling the story. I will let you know if my opinion changes if I ever decide to reread this book.
The Quantum Thief is a book full of potential but not quite getting there yet. Let's see how the sequel, The Fractal Prince will do when it comes out in September.
on 13 February 2011
I wanted to like this so much... New author with a great story, the pre-publication hype suggesting it might be the stuff of legends, something to reinvigorate our jaded SF Scene, and it comes with a stonking recommendation from one of the few current hard-SF authors who I really rate, Charles Stross. He said "Hard to admit, but I think he's better at this stuff than I am." Well, Mr Stross, it's great that you're so generous to your young proteges, but in this humble reviewer's opinion: "trust me, you have nothing to worry about sir!"
Was it all bad? No, not by all means. I asked myself whether I would have enjoyed it had there not been so much hype and my expectations had been raised so much?
The answer is I think probably still the same. "A little, but not much."
Plus points: 1) It started off well enough, with an interesting (if not quite as original as many people seem to be making out) variation on the iterated prisoner's dilemma. 2) There are lots (and I mean lots) of ideas and inventions, and the sheer number of these mean that some of them at least are convincing/interesting. 3) The author does occasionally have a good turn of phrase. 4) The author is clearly trying hard to be original, a commendable effort.
Minus points: 1) The characters are not really very interesting. Not just unsympathetic, but really rather dull. 2) There is so much left unexplained that this makes it a very difficult read. Not difficult as in "I didn't understand it" by the way, but difficult in that so little is glossed or explained that there is so much that the reader can't relate to. This makes it very difficult for there to be any tension because we never know the full implications of everything or what trick is going to be pulled out of the bag next. 3) The prose is occasionally effective but mostly its quite grating to read, there's never any real fluency to it, so you can't really get sucked in. It's a bit like reading an imaginary science text book at times. 4) Basically despite the trimmings its a "seen it all before", the "twist" at the end was so obvious that I almost don't want to call it one.
In conclusion then, I won't rule out ever reading something by this author again. Certainly, with a good editor and a bit more experience under his belt, and if he hit upon a good story with interesting characters then he could well develop into a serious contender. On the evidence of this first outing, though, you're pretty safe for the time being Mr Stross!
Oh, by the way if you want something really original science fiction wise, you might have to look a little further than English-language stuff. Waterstones have a few translated books from Japanese in the SF section, and all of these have been much more interesting that this.
on 7 August 2012
I bought Quantum thief based on the Charles Stross endorsement - "I hate to say it, but he might be better at this stuff than I am".
This is partially true. The initial 4 or so chapters are pretty mind-bending, in that many plot facets are introduced without exposition. Narration is first person and is unreliable and partial - the main character being a partial-amnesiac.
What I like most about the style of this novel is that it doesn't spell it out for you. This is a tricky beast, challenging the reader to keep up.
The depth of characterisation, and humour is not quite up there with Stross, but the depth of world-building probably exceeds it. If you enjoyed Glasshouse by Stross this is comparable, think of it as a cross between that and Altered Carbon, minus [most of] the ultra-violence.
Good for fans of trans-humanist, anarchic fiction, not dullard space-opera. I have pre-ordered the squeal.
on 5 December 2010
I enjoyed this book. The first I have read by this author. I found the culture of a walking Martian city based on an idealised Paris fascinating. I am not sorry I bought it. There is a big but... Buuut...The thread of a tale can be easily broken by unfamiliar words or unexplained ideas. Several times I found myself reading a paragraph and was suddenly derailed trying to understand a concept or word. OK, a lot was explained later. But some of the plot never seemed to get explained. Which is why the last fifth of the book felt like a morass of porridge. I just could not understand what was going on. However the book was, mostly, a fun read.