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.