Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Quantum Thief

Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz (orionbooks.co.uk)

Every now and then an authorial début attracts the kind of attention usually reserved for the second coming of Christ, the launch of a new iPhone or some equally monumental happening. The Quantum Thief was one of these, appearing on the shelves with the ringing endorsement of various stars of the SF pantheon. And it’s almost, almost as good as they say it is.

To start at the start, the opening line is an absolute gem:
As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk. (p.1)

It’s a great hook, throwing open a dozen intriguing questions, and its dust-dry wit speaks volumes about the man narrating it. Jean le Flambeur: posthuman, mind-thief, trickster and wag, the prisoner of the Axelrod Archons. 

And prisoner is the operative part of that description, at least as far as the first chapter is concerned, because Jean is an inmate of the Dilemma Prison, forced to play endless iterative games of the Prisoner’s Dilemma – a classic example of game theory, in which combinations of cooperation and defection between the two participants prompt various patterns of reward and punishment – against his fellow inmates. Over thousands and thousands of iterations, the inescapable logic of the system will burn away the selfish, sociopathic inclination to betray, turning career criminals into cooperative, productive citizens.

It’s a fascinating idea, barely given time to breathe before Jean is broken out of the prison – and perhaps that’s just as well, because there’s only so many times you can replay the Prisoner’s Dilemma before it becomes a kind of prison for the reader, too. But the swiftness of the pace in this opening chapter is brutally unforgiving, hurling concepts and terminology at the reader and expecting them to keep up.

It’s a risky strategy which could easily intimidate and overwhelm, but Rajaniemi tempers the information overload with a snappy, stylish delivery which just about manages to keep the novel from capsizing.

Things stabilise quickly after the breakout, once Jean and his rescuer – and her sentient spaceship – evade their pursuers and come to a delicate truce, and the novel settles into a comfortable, slower (but by no means sedate) rhythm as they head to Oubliette, the moving Martian city which is the main setting for most of the novel.

That’s not to say that the flow of ideas slows to a trickle, however. Oubliette has a time-based economy where the population are eventually, once their allocated time runs out, re-uploaded into beings called Quiet to carry out various necessary public functions until they’ve earned back the right to exist as themselves.

Even more complex and fascinating is Oubliette’s social structure, which takes the currently-raging privacy debate to an extreme but logically solid conclusion; every citizen has a ‘privacy sense’ or gevulot which allows them to limit how much of themselves they share – including memories, names, faces and even their physical presence:
‘Let’s have a look at the agora memory – like this.’ The sensation is sudden, like finally finding the word that was at the tip of your tongue. Mieli remembers seeing the agora from high up, in incredible detail, knowing that she can recall every face in the crowd. She has a clear memory of the thief running across the agora.
  “Oh,” the Gentleman says. There is a sudden gevulot request from him asking her to forget his reaction. She accepts…(p.103)

The concept is fresh and fascinating, and impeccably well thought-through, from its effects on Oubliette’s social mores to the inevitable ways people find to get around it – ‘analogue holes’ such as newspapers, for example, which are technically illegal but tolerated:
There are pictures; a black-and-white shot of him… The awareness that people he has not shared gevulot with now know who he is and what he has done makes him feel dirty. The gentleman at the next table is looking at him sharply now. He pays quickly, wraps himself in privacy and makes his way home. (p.121)

The way Rajaniemi presents this and other ideas – as fragments and passing asides, building up a sensation of depth through an organic layering of information – can be a little intimidating, but it’s a technique which comes with its own rewards. The barrage of ideas and unfamiliar words grant the world they inhabit a bewildering, complexity, at once filled with alien concepts and strangely familiar in its richness and variation. Every concept and location reveals itself as just another small cog, meshing with what’s come before and hinting at the shape of a larger, interlocking machine. And it gives The Quantum Thief longevity as a novel, as well; terms and events you took on faith the first time round develop an additional richness on re-reading, granted additional context by your foreknowledge.

This is fractal worldbuilding, a whole made up of little details which are themselves comprised of smaller parts within, and down and down the rabbit hole. It’s not always perfect, unfortunately, and certain aspects of the setting start to look a little shaky when you focus on them too hard. For example, how is the Martian space elevator anchored to a moving city without centrifugal forces plucking the scuttling settlement off the face of the planet? And what are the exact mechanics of Oubliette’s time economy – one character, a ‘millenniaire’ possessed of thousands of years, dies like any other man as his Watch winds down – so are time (money) and time (remaining until Quiet) not the same thing? Everyone in Oubliette acts as though they are, and yet.

But for the most part the setting is well thought-through, and rewarding to think about. This is the sort of novel which isn’t just great entertainment. Its refusal to condescend is an education, in that it makes you want to go away and look things up you didn’t understand – the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in my case – and rewards you when you do, with little in-jokes and nuggets of deeper insight.

It’s worth taking a moment to talk about the Shakespearean flair of the language, too. The Quantum Thief has a vocabulary all its own, mixing quirky neologisms with re-purposed words from across the globe: zoku, gogol, qupt, q-dots, archons, Sobornost, spime, tzaddik, gevulot, exomemory, vasilev and guberniya, among others.

Again, there’s little in the way of hand-holding – the words are allowed to glitter and tantalise un-exposited, building a sense of both the alien-ness of the setting and its complexity. Yet it’s astonishing how the reader’s assimilation of the novel’s vocabulary subtly aids suspension of disbelief, easing them into a living, breathing world.

For all that this is a glimpse of a far-future, truly posthuman society – and handles its posthumanism seriously, with talk of requiring ‘permissions’ to access a body’s full superhuman capabilities, and discussion of body designers’ taste in movie star – The Quantum Thief wears its science lightly. As in other areas, the novel prefers to skip lightly across the surface of its concepts, rather than getting bogged down in the dense technicalities which are a common danger of ‘hard’ SF.

Content to let the science tick away in the background, the plot calls on older, pulpier forms, hinted at in the belle époque flavour of Oubliette society and architecture, and outright waved in your face when one character is gifted a genetically engineered Cthuloid monstrosity as a pet and names it ‘Sherlock’.

Because both main threads of the plot are detective fiction of sorts, with Jean le Flambeur trying to hunt down whatever parts of himself he left on Mars, and a teenage super-sleuth becoming mixed up in a cryptographic conspiracy that goes to the heart of Oubliette society. In this way The Quantum Thief gets to both have its cake and eat it, wrapping an intelligent, challenging piece of SF in the slick and entertaining tropes of a space-opera detective novel.

Even the action is first-class, drawing on high-tech superhumanism to create thrilling and sensational set pieces. Rajaniemi does indulge in the overused trick of winding time down to a crawl, but here it’s a necessary evil; on one occasion we see the action from an unenhanced participant’s perspective, and it’s a nightmarish blur of impossibly fast sound and fury.

The action isn’t frivolous, either, but given the weight of consequence. A particularly exciting knock-down drag-out faceoff between two augmented characters comes to a screeching halt when both, having temporarily shut down each other’s techno-superpowers, realise the third person in the room is pointing an antique (ie 20th-century tech) revolver in their direction. Even when death is mostly temporary, it doesn’t seem to be taken lightly.

So. The novel’s first and second acts are brilliant, effortlessly balancing the interweaving plot lines with a perfect evocation of a living, breathing – and very alien – society. If The Quantum Thief falls down anywhere, however, it’s in the climax. The pace picks up as it’s supposed to, and the stakes are suitably elevated, but the brilliantly-evoked setting begins to get a little motion-blurred.

Too much happening, too fast – for the first time you’re reminded that this is Rajaniemi’s début novel, as the climax teeters on the edge of incoherence. It just about holds together, but it takes a close re-reading before all the motivations which drive it start to make sense – and having to stop and puzzle out what exactly is going on isn’t terribly compatible with the last act’s breakneck flow.

Nonetheless, it’s to The Quantum Thief’s credit that the plot is completely driven by character motivation rather than the other way around. And there’s a lot more to recommend, from the novel’s sly wit and superb characterisation to the hints at how this world links back to our own. The zoku, for example, appear to be an evolution of twentieth-century gaming clans into a sort of quantum-entangled socialist collective, swapping and reshaping their virtual and physical presences with casual indifference and gamifying everything from relationships to war.

But it feels like going into any further detail would be to spoil the pleasure of discovery. While some of the ideas might not be all that new, it’s the way they’re realised that is The Quantum Thief’s real joy. And now this review is finished, I’m off to read the sequel.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012


Jennifer Fallon
Orbit (orbitbooks.net)

Two things happen in Warrior. This isn’t hyperbole, or writerly misdirection to hook you into reading more of this review: the second book in the Wolfblade Trilogy could have been stripped down to a dozen pages or so and still served as a functional second act.

You’ll notice I said functional, not fun. What happens is what has to happen, and what’s so obviously been coming since the prologue of Wolfblade, the first in the trilogy. Those critical scenes lay the foundations for a confrontation we don’t get to see here, and which will presumably take up most of the third book’s equally ample girth.

But for almost seven hundred pages of Warrior, nothing happens. There is incident, but it’s all incidental. A more sophisticated writer might have used the biblical thickness of the novel to build tension and tighten the screws, instead of dwelling on the banal to the extent Warrior does. Where there’s foreshadowing, it’s clumsy and overt; where there’s an attempt at suspense, you can all-but hear the cheesy musical sting.

And critically, the politics which makes up the central driving motivation for almost every character is simply boring – modern politics might be sadly lacking in backroom backstabbings, but the medievally fantastical sort needs a bit of fizz and intrigue to keep it from turning into a slightly less sophisticated version of Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s hard to persuade yourself that any of this really matters when Fallon seems to treat it mostly as an afterthought – and when even the rival schemers spend twenty-four years manoeuvring to negligible effect.

Which chronological shoe-horning allows me to smoothly segue into the odd structural choices which do little to distract from Warrior’s slack, bloated through-line. The book starts eight years after its prequel, giving Marla Wolfblade’s children a little time to grow up and become characters rather than plot tokens, which does give the novel a suitable dynastic heft.

But it’s as though nothing else has changed in all those years – the nation of Hythria is still ruled by Marla’s wastrel brother, while the same political enemies are still skulking around the corridors of power, plotting and scheming to very little effect. The same people hold the same posts, and about the only other sign of time passing is that Marla’s tally of husbands has risen to a black-widowy four.

It’s unclear why Fallon decided now rather than then was the time to pause and start her trilogy’s second act; the action focuses on a new arrival in Marla’s household, in the shape of the painfully emo Luciena, daughter of a Wolfblade husband who lived and died off-page between the books. Her childish defiance is instantly tedious, and even as a political pawn she barely makes a ripple in the plot.

Her effect on Marla is more profound, making the matriarch look at herself and her actions in a new light, but barely touched upon which is a shame. I’d rather have spent more time examining the effect of Marla’s political streetfighting on her battered soul than spend precious pages on the next generation of Wolfblades.

The children. Not that they qualify for that title for long, as the tying off of the Luciena subplot abruptly catapults us forward another twelve years, and Hythria remains locked in social and political stasis. Damin Wolfblade is Marla’s eldest and heir to the throne; a gaggle of cousins, siblings and milk-brothers surround him, of varying levels of cardboard-cutoutery, but he’s the real focus of Warrior.

Damin’s interesting. His uncle, the nominal ruler who Marla has quietly usurped, is a hedonist, paedophile and sociopathic waste of space with little interest in keeping a fragile country from tearing itself apart, and everyone around Damin is subtly terrified that the heir will turn out just the same. Fallon is playing her cards more carefully here, and it takes a closer reading than the novel has really earned to establish exactly what Damin’s worth.

Unfortunately it’s primarily Damin’s passivity which makes him inscrutable, and when you can only observe your protagonist in the reflected glow of his peers’ behaviour, that tends to put the focus elsewhere. And just as with Luciena earlier in the novel, it’s the rest of the Wolfblade mob who wallow in the limelight.

While none of them have quite the same depth as Damin here, or his mother did in the trilogy’s first book, the action does at least begin to pick up a bit. Towards the end of Warrior we see genuine incident, and while the plot developments may have been telegraphed, trumpeted and writ large in letters of neon fire, they’re nonetheless affecting. Here we see flashes of the uncompromising insistence on cause and consequence which made Wolfblade so refreshing, but it’s too late, too late. And too reliant on the almost wilful blindness of the supposedly-canny Marla and her brood to the unapologetic lunatic they’re harbouring in their midst.

I enjoyed reading Wolfblade; the writing wasn’t going to win any awards, but it had an uncompromising streak which made it quite a break from the cosy norm. Warrior retains the pedestrian prose, but little enough happens that its forerunner’s brutal pragmatism barely gets to rise above the murky surface. Even when it does, it feels a little like a rehash of earlier, better scenes. The offing of a (relative) innocent, the reluctant setting-aside of bloody vengeance in favour of political pragmatism – we’ve heard these songs before.

However, having ragged on Warrior for close to a thousand words now, it’s necessary to caveat this review a little by noting that in the last few dozen pages Fallon doesn’t merely recover her authorial mojo, but also teases at an action-packed, exciting final volume. So here I am, hoping Warlord can live up to that promise and redeem this sagging second act.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Gathering Storm

Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Orbit (orbitbooks.net)

The Wheel of Time turns, and authors come and go. The Gathering Storm is the twelfth doorstop in Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series, and the first to be published following Jordan’s death in 2007. Even fans of the Wheel of Time would admit that the series had lost its way somewhat, becoming bloated with characters and descriptions of soft furnishings.

Memories abound from the last few novels of hundred-page prologues in which I recognise not a single character, or entire books which not only fail to drive the plot forward but actually end, chronologically speaking, before the events of the previous novel’s climax. Reading the Wheel of Time was beginning to feel less a pleasure and more like an endurance race, where you only continue in an attempt to justify the countless hours invested in the series.

The Gathering Storm, however, feels like a transition – like one of the winds with which each novel in the Wheel of Time traditionally opens had blown through the book and swept out all of the cobwebs. It seems primarily concerned with beginning to tie off the thousands of loose ends still extant – and with only one (now two) more novels planned for the series, it’s about time.

While there are still occasional troublesome reversions to the same meandering, unfocused narrative that crippled the preceding books, you get the sense that Sanderson spent much of his time balancing the need to respect those parts of The Gathering Storm which Jordan had already written with an abundant awareness of the series’ shortcomings.

Plotwise, it’s labyrinthine enough to defy any attempt at summary. Broadly – the end of the world is coming, and Dragon Reborn Rand al Thor is still trying to forge the various bickering nations of men into an army capable of staving off the darkness at the Final Battle. Which is much the same summary as the preceding novels, but where The Gathering Storm differs is in its focus on Rand’s internal struggle. I’m little able to construct an adequate timeline of his rise from shepherd to messianic ruler, but it can’t be longer than a couple of in-book years – a short period in which to adjust, and one which has had its consequences.

One of the most interesting parts of The Gathering Storm is in showing the effort Rand’s expended on turning himself into a weapon, a cold, unfeeling monster able to justify almost any atrocity by the knowledge that he’s trying to save the world. For the first time, we’re shown how disturbing his transformation is for those who know (and knew) him, and just how brittle his mental state has become. Given that his past self, the Dragon Lews Therin, went mad and blew an Everest-dwarfing hole in the world, doesn’t bode too well.

What The Gathering Storm manages better than its predecessors is to provide a window on Rand’s mental disintegration, to let us see why he makes the decisions he does… and the damage it does to his increasingly fragile psyche. It’s to Sanderson’s credit how interesting he manages to make the previously anodyne Rand, showing a deft touch for characterisation. Unfortunately, even with 766 pages to burn there’s simply too much going on to allow this level of characterisation to filter down, and while the story is veritably chock-solid with political intrigue, supernatural battles and the personal crises of its many, many supporting characters, it all feels a little thin in comparison.

Mat Cauthon, mercenary warlord and Rand’s childhood friend, is given particularly little to do and plenty of pages to do it in – his meandering journey towards the city of Caemlyn feels almost leisurely, and detracts from the tension which otherwise runs through The Gathering Storm. The superficiality and tedious repetitiveness of his own internal monologue – women are pretty, but I’m married now, but I just want to be free, but I have responsibilities, but oh what’s the harm in a little gambling and wenching, but ad infinitum – makes these particular sections of the novel almost unendurable. The book would have been better off without him, or at least with giving him something more interesting to do.

Nonetheless, despite the wooliness and lack of drama which seeps into the novel on occasion, there’s a decent sense of rising tension and periodic bursts of action which keep The Gathering Storm from becoming another near-unendurable bore. And more importantly, whereas the preceding eleven books have just continued to grow thicker and more tangled, like some ever-expanding ball of wool, here we finally get a sense that resolution might be in sight. Loose ends are tied off, long-running plot arcs are resolved, and minor characters are allowed to fade into the background as their purpose is served.

Incomprehensible unless you’ve read through the entire series, and hard work even if you have, The Gathering Storm is nonetheless a substantial step up in terms of quality and content. Sanderson’s style is simply more focused on effective storytelling than Jordan’s, showing a willingness to dispense with much of the vast quantity of peripheral plots, places and people in order to focus on what really matters. Whether it’s due to a detachment from the material which Jordan as its creator found impossible, or simply down to talent, is fairly irrelevant. The Gathering Storm is better than the Wheel of Time has been in a long time, and the groundwork Jordan laid is as complex and vital as ever. If Sanderson can continue to steer the remaining novels in the same direction, reading the end of the Wheel of Time might even become a pleasure rather than a chore.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com