After finishing The Quantum Thief, the freshman outing from Finnish SF author Hannu Rajaniemi, I sat in classic fashion in my office, next to a big open window. As I stared off into space the sun set and the moon rose high into the night sky, leaves turned orange and fell from the trees, my children grew old and all of my friends died.
In short, it was a book I felt torn over. Is Rajaniemi a promising yet fledgling first time author, still finding his footing, or is he a brilliant chess master, always five steps ahead of the rest of us? The answer may be that he is, in fact, both.
At its core, The Quantum Thief is really noir dressed up in sci-fi clothing. It centers around master thief Jean Le Flambeur, who’s been locked away inside the Dilemma Prison, a virtual jail in which he’s forced to play deadly games against thousands of copies of himself. Jean’s eventually rescued by a mysterious women named Mieli and her sentient spacecraft, Perhonen. After an action-packed escape from Le Flambeur’s post-human jailers, we’re whisked away to the walking Martian city of Oubliette… and that’s when things get silly.
The book is without a doubt one of the most unique science fiction stories to come along in recent memory. And if that sounds a little ambiguous, it’s because The Quantum Thief can be an ambiguous book. To their credit, authors like Alastair Reynolds or Peter F. Hamilton don’t feel the need to explain every detail about the worlds they’ve created, instead leaving the readers to fill in the gaps for themselves. Rajaniemi definitely falls into that category, but sometimes the lack of explanation can be a double-edged sword. Things go a little too far when the worlds and technology described come across as TOO alien.
Where things become muddled here is when plot details pass you by because you were too busy trying to figure out exactly what gevulot is, or the difference between the Sobornost and the Zoku. More than once I found myself having to go back because I was still trying to sort out the details.
And it’s really those small details that much of the story loses itself in. The plot itself is fairly simplistic. It’s the window dressing that at times can make it seem so foreign and daunting. Rajaniemi’s characters lack a basic humanity which the reader can grab onto as they navigate their way through the world he’s created. Ironically, it’s the detective charged with catching Le Flambeur, and not Le Flambeur himself (who receives star billing in the just about everything you’ll read about the book) who comes across as the most human, and definitely the most interesting of the story’s motley crew. This is a complaint that’s begun cropping up in other reviews, and for everything Rajaniemi’s gotten right, it’s a reminder that he’s still new at this.
As the novel nears its end, the various plot threads come together surprisingly fast, and before you know it it’s all over. It’s a simple climax for characters that live in such a complicated world, and I would have liked to have seen Rajaniemi spend a little more time on it.
In all honesty, a lot of these problems passed me by as I was reading the book. Despite it’s shortcomings, and there are a few, The Quantum Thief is a lot of fun. The details we get about the world’s history are few, but more than enough to draw you in and keep you engaged. It’s obvious that Rajaniemi has got the worldbuilding down, if not the emotional heft.
Rajaniemi has created an incredibly rich and textured world, and while I’d never want to be spoon-fed mountains of exposition, I’d like to see the universe he’s writing in fleshed out a little more. Myself and others may have that wish granted, as the end of the book sets up a sequel, and I believe Rajaniemi’s spoken of a possible trilogy. We’ll have to wait and see.
The Quantum Thief won’t drop in the States until May 2011, but you can preorder the book from amazon.co.uk right now.