Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief is bursting with so many ideas that it is an exhilarating read. What it needs is just a little more finesse, a slightly better pace for doling out information, for letting us play in this wonderful playground he's created. It is so complete, but so alien, and I needed just a little bit more of a guide. I like to flatter myself that I'm not an unperceptive reader, and I certainly don't mind it when authors don't tip their hands all at once and want me to work for it.

But where I had a few problems was where there weren't explanations (or weren't particularly good ones) of some core concepts, so later, when I was supposed to find this particular use of an idea horrifying, it didn't have the emotional punch it needed to.

Just a little bit more of not expecting all your readers to have all your specialized knowledge in the next book, Hannu Rajaniemi? Don't talk down to us, just learn how to pace your reveals about how this world works. Specifically, I'm talking about gogols. I always thought I knew what that meant, in general, but implications of that in this fictional universe, why they were and could be horrifying I could only guess at. And that made some emotional punches fall flat. 

What I'm saying is, I want to play too. But you have to explain the rules. Even if you're playing Calvinball and the rule is that the rules are constantly changing.

This reminds me very much of a show I saw some friends in, years ago. It was a comedy. They had overrehearsed. And because they had, they'd forgotten where the original laughs were, and were adding extra stuff in to make each other laugh. What this did was make it inaccessible to the audience, who hadn't been there through two+ months of rehearsals. The underlying jokes were obscured by in-jokes. And that was funny for them, but not for us. 

That aside, this is a dizzying exploration of ideas that tumble free and fast, one after another. The sheer exhilaration of the new ideas is breathtaking, when I could keep up with them. And while I find there are some first-book problems, characters are, thankfully, not one of them. I found them complex and compelling.

Jean le Flambeur, master thief, is sprung from prison by Mieli, a warrior from an Oortian culture. (A little more on what that means? The tastes we get are very interesting, but they're not much.) She is doing this to help her find a lost love, working for one of those who seem to play with reality on a galactic scale. (Again, not much detail on what this means in practice.) She takes him to the Oubliette on Mars where he has to recover information he left for himself. But to get it, he'll have to choose to pay a terrible price. Or not to pay it. 

The Oubliette was the most fleshed out concept in the book, and it was fascinating - proving Rajaniemi can explain things interestingly, and with emotional punch, when he wants to. It is a total privacy society in the midst of total surveillance. While everything is recorded, control over who can see or do what extends even to who can perceive you when walking down the street, and whether the two participants in a conversation allow each other to remember it happened at all, let alone the contents. 

And when we get into what memories might be accessible or inaccessible, what might be tainting them, and who might be behind the scenes - not to mention revelations about the nature of the Oubliette itself, I was at my most enthralled. This book turned me on my head several times. 

I've heard the next book is even better, and I hope that's true. I hope he does more of what he does so very very well in the next one, and less withholding just to withhold. This is an excellent first novel, but it's challenging, and not without fault. I love that he's trying to do so much. Next comes the skill to manage so many elements. Rajaniemi is almost there. I can taste it.

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