Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book Report: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief (The Quantum Thief Trilogy #1) Left hook, straight punch. But no knock out. That's pretty much my review of Hannu Rajeniemi's The Quantum Thief. Often miscategorized as Science Fiction, sometimes even as "Hard" Science Fiction, this Science Fantasy book packs a galloping adventure of post-humans fighting for... well, I'm not totally sure what they were fighting over. In fact, can anyone tell me why exactly Mieli busted le Flambeur out of the Dilemma Prison? And why did the zoku take over a population of gogols (mind copies) indentured into a Mars terraforming prison that was data-scrambled after the Spike (the explosion of Jupiter) in a deal with the Cryptarch (former warden?), who seems to be an incarnation of Jean le Flambeur, and then buffer said deal by creating the tzaddikim to counter the Cryptarch's power? It's not just your head that's spinning.

Here's a breakdown straight from the book
An interplanetary thief is building a picotech machine out of the city itself while the cryptarchs take over people's minds to try to destroy the zoku colony in order to stop the tzaddikim from breaking their power.
Course the book doesn't actually answer why any of this happened.

I've read a number of reviews that ding Rajaniemi for his "show don't tell" style, but frankly all he did was tell. What they really mean is that he never explained anything, but this doesn't mean he showed me shit. Here's a passage:
Isidore has been thinking about le Flambeur all afternoon. The Oubliette exomemory does not have much on him. In the end, he spent Time on an expensive data agent that ventured into the Realm outside the Oubliette noosphere. What it brought back was a mixture of fact and legend. No actual memories of lifecasts, not even video or audio. Fragments from before the Collapse, online speculation about a criminal mastermind operating from Fast London and Paris. Fanciful tales of a sunlifting factory stolen from the Sobornost, a guberniya brain that was broken into; dirty dealings in Realm unreal estate.
None of that shows me a goddamn thing. Tells me a lot, but shows me nothing. What does a sunlifting factory look like? What does a Sobornost guberniya look like? And along the journey we encounter q-dots, Dragons, Archons, qupting, gevulot, and I never get a clear view of what any of this looks like. Especially gevulot. It's basically personal privacy settings. But I could never tell what people could and couldn't see, unless Rajaniemi pointed it out. And by not having any kind of bearing in a world based on the far implications of science that haven't even been settled yet (string theory), I was left in a limbo where every direction came from the author, and thus made it more magic than science and more Science Fantasy than Science Fiction. Oh, the Engineer-of-Souls has Dragons? Okay. No, I have no idea what they are or what they look like, but okay. Oh, and he gardens? Okay. There was a Spike event that erased most of the Solar System's data banks? Okay, since you don't explain this, I'll just have to accept what you tell me. Mieli fires a ghost gun? Sure, okay, I have no idea what that looks like or the capabilities of that gun, but I'll just have to accept that it does what you say it does and when it fails because you say it does I'll go on and accept that, too.

Now, I think Rajaniemi did one thing right: I think he's pretty consistent. I believe that he has it worked it out, but I personally was not able to get a handle on the rules. Maybe I'm just too stupid. People like to laud his worldbuilding skills. Yes, they seem very strong. I would have loved to see the world he built. There are glimpses, for sure, but I never saw it fully rendered in HDTV.

One thing that didn't seem consistent was Exomemory. I love this concept: a public ubiquitous memory storage and recording infrastructure. Spoiler Warning: the Exomemory was born out of a panopticon. The Oubliette was a former prison, which is why Exomemory ubiquitously records everything, expect for certain plot points. Like when Mieli and le Flambeur kill a bunch of pirates and blow up a museum and then fly away on angel's wings only to be unobserved by the ubiquitous Exomemory. Yes, angel's wings. But no one noticed.

Also, there's a lot of loose ends that are just not bothered with: who exactly is the cryptarch? I got the implication that it was a former incarnation of le Flambeur, but how, when, why? What was the god lodged into the guy's head after the Spike event and was then placed into le Flambeur's pico-mechanical memory palace? What about the nine other Watches? I get the impression that many of these questions are going to be answered in sequels, but that strikes me as cheap marketing, which leaves this work, as a stand-alone piece of art, truncated, unconcerned with the details, weak.

The inverse of this abbreviated story is that Rajaniemi keeps the pace going and the plot tight. Add on to that the boiler plate but well executed gentleman-thief heist story (we've seen it a thousand times, but he did it well) and you got yourself an interplanetary adventure that keeps you flipping pages, despite the lack of details. Ignore the man behind the curtain!

There were times when I thought, does Rajaniemi have a handle on the English language? (He's Finnish and lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, which only ostensibly speaks English [this I got from Stross! Just ask him!]). The biggest example of this was the POV changes, which he did without scene breaks and where he'd change from first to third person from one sentence to the next. This wasn't a fatal flaw, but it was a bit befuddling, and the real question was what utility did this possess? I'm all fine with people changing conventions and playing with the rules of grammar and syntax, but with this comes Peril, which can be a writer's best friend. Or enemy. Cormac McCarthy does this and pulls it off. But you, Senator, are no Cormac McCarthy. This distraction didn't ruin the book by any means, but every time it popped up I asked: why?

This book was more than just a heist book. It was also an ambitious exploration of quantum-mechanics, mind uploading/copying/forking, and cryptography in a post/mid-singularity universe. It's a tale set in a time  when humans are little more than software running on machines, and they can be anything the dreamer can imagine (and the hardware will render). Add to that the question: if the safeguards we use to protect our selves (quantum-cryptography) are untrustworthy and you can not ensure you are you, what then is left of yourself? And what if your past self was the perpetrator of this very literal identity theft? Yeap, total mindfuck.

I know I kinda ripped this one a new one, but this was a terribly ambitious book that took many risks. Its flaws do not outweigh its successes and while I don't know that I have the lasting power to read 5 books set in this universe, I do wish more writers took as many chances as Rajaniemi does.

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