Monday, January 21, 2013

Review: 'The Quantum Thief'

The Quantum Thief
By Hannu Rajaniemi
Cover image from

     Recently I lamented that last year I didn't really love any of the books I read, although I did like several. Well, the first book I've completed this year may have broken the streak. I say may because the book is part of a series and very confusing. Still, the plot is reasonably self-contained in the first volume, and I'm curious enough about the story and background to try at least one more volume.
     The Quantum Thief is a mix of detective novel (with particular reference to Maurice Leblanc's gentleman thief Arsene Lupin), high-concept and high-tech science fiction, plus (I think) a little bit of cinema reference thrown in.There's also a little bit of Philip K. Dick in that you can never be certain that reality is what it seems or what you remember.
     I also can't be sure if I understand the book. It throws a lot of terminology at us that is similar to or references things from history, but with new meanings that are only vaguely explained. I found myself wishing for a glossary or at least a list of characters (both of which exist on Wikipedia, I've just discovered), but I'm not sure the sense of confusion isn't the author's intent. It may even add to the reader's enjoyment.
      The plot involves Jean le Flambeur (flambeur is a a French word for a gambler -- or, more specifically, someone who plays games for a large amount of money, if I can trust a definition en francais that I just found online -- and also invokes the title of a French heist film Bob le Flambeur), a notorious thief, who has been placed in an intricate prison in which he must game for survival against other beings, including copies of himself. What's confusing is the book never completely spells out if any of these copies are the real Jean, or indeed if that word has any meaning in this future. Is there only one surviving personality -- a soul -- or are these only replicas? Regardless, he is not complete because memories, knowledge and maybe abilities have been removed, either by the authorities or by Jean before his capture.
     Shortly before what looks like it  might be Jean's last game, he is rescued by a mercenary and her sentient ship on behalf of some third party who wants or needs Jean to steal something. To do this, they have to go to Mars, or rather back to Mars. The plot then jumps to a sort of a gumshoe type plot involving Isidore Beautrelet, a young amateur detective (though how young isn't explained; his age is given in Mars years, which I just looked up and find are almost twice as long as Earth years); his mentor, a hidden-faced, semi-official costumed vigilante called The Gentleman, and Beautrelet's girlfriend, Pixil, a zoku (some sort of elite group that doesn't seem quite human, though humanoid). We follow Beautrelet as he solves a case, teaching us some of the rules and peculiarities of the future society and technology.
     One of these is gevulot, which is sort of like friending on Facebook, only something you carry around with you wherever you go. You can interact or not with people around you depending on your settings (though refusal to do so can be seen as antisocial), and as deeply or superficially as you like.
     Another is the variable immortality. As long as the memories and mind are intact, bodies can be repaired or replaced, and life goes on, but it's not indefinite. It's more like serial immortality. Periodically, you die and are translated into a Quiet, a servile robot-like mechanism that does grunt work for the common good. Eventually you are reborn.
     The plot gets more and more complex as Jean tries to retrieve something he left on Mars. He also re-encounters an old girlfriend, other old acquaintances, and steals something right from under Beautrelet's nose.
      Jean's rescuers have agendas, sometimes different from their backers, but it seems Jean is now more than just a thief, and was even before his most recent incarceration.
     There's a suitably big finish to the novel, though the reason for Jean's rescue is only partially revealed. Book two, The Fractal Thief, has already been published. I'll be looking for it soon.


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