Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Quantum Thief

I'm not sure there is such a thing as bibliographic karma, but there are moments when the right book appears at exactly the right time. I've long been a fan of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series, and I was saddened by Harrison's death this last 15 August. That series details the antics of Slippery Jim DiGriz, the eponymous Stainless Steel Rat and the galaxy's best thief. The Quantum Thief is a proud follower on the trail that Harrison blazed; Hannu Rajaniemi's Jean de Flambeur is a worthy successor to Slippery Jim now that his stories have ended.

This first novel by Hannu Rajaniemi, a Finn living in Scotland, is both a challenge and a delight. The delight comes from following the exploits of a thief just rescued from prison and obliged to help his benefactress, Mieli, on a mission/quest of a dubious nature: one does not break a thief out of prison without usually desiring his talents. Unfortunately, de Flambeur's memories of his felonious ways have been carefully locked up in a Martian city called the Oubliette, so he has to steal his own memories back from a city that is walking across the Martian desert. The challenge comes from the far future setting that Rajaniemi creates; his world-building is elaborate and immersive, and his narrative throws the reader into the action without any guidance whatsoever. Much as in Steven Erikson's Malazan books, exotic names and ideas are bandied about without explanation, forcing the reader to glean meaning from context and repetition.

The world Rajaniemi has created is chock full of the big ideas that are the stereotype of speculative fiction. Especially fascinating is the culture of the Oubliette, hinging as it does on dual axes of time and privacy. On the one hand, the citizens of the Oubliette use a currency of time, paying for items with seconds counted out from their personal Watches. Anyone who has seen the movie In Time (http://perrynomasia.blogspot.com/2012/02/in-time.html) or read Harlan Ellison's "Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman" will recognize this conceit, but Rajaniemi changes it somewhat so that when a citizen's time runs out, instead of dying he serves a stint as a Quiet, a cyborg unit doing menial labor for the city. The citizen retains all his memories but performs service for a period of time before being allowed to be reborn into a new body with all his memories intact. The process takes for granted the ability to communicate consciousness and thought from body to body, and sometimes to machine. 

The second fundamental concept of the Oubliette also takes advantage of this capability: privacy is paramount to all the Oubliette's citizens, and every interaction includes a contract that details the extent of how much can be revealed or even remembered by the participants. Imagine a night on the town with the contract that stipulates that you could only remember that you had a good time but can remember no details of what you did or who you did it with. Such manipulation requires a monstrous computer that works on a quantum scale with interfaces to each and every citizen and a security protocol that guides how much can and cannot be remembered. People also share messages via co-memories—you receive a message from a friend that is actually a memory; you remember a conversation that you never had, because you have agreed that messages from the sender will allow the security program to shape your memory that you had it all along. The concept raises all sorts of fascinating philosophical questions, but Rajaniemi only touches on them in passing, allowing the reader to wander into that labyrinth on their own. Instead, The Quantum Thief focuses on how such a system could be manipulated by artists and thieves, both of which describe Jean de Flambeur. As is the tradition with the great literary thieves, de Flambeur is also something of a trickster, and so recovering his own memories is a task made more complicated by a sense of humor he doesn't entirely remember having. 

Rajaniemi deftly interweaves de Flambeur's story with that of Isidore, a young Martian architectural student whose daily life provides a great deal of the explanation of how the Oubliette culture works. The story follows him as he tries to work out his relationship with Pixil, a member of a culture based on 20th and 21st century gaming culture. Pixil's people are supreme crafters and technicians who are the most adept at the quantum computing required by the Oubliette, but they are just barely trusted, treated much like gypsies. Isidore is also getting something of a reputation as an amateur detective which is the source of his conflict with Pixil, who wants him to devote more time to her. But Isidore suspects he is being groomed by the Oubliette's tzaddikim, superheroes who act as voluntary police for the city and beloved by its citizens. And of course, if Isidore is a detective, then his path must somehow eventually cross de Flambeur's. But instead of being clich├ęd, Rajaniemi surprises the reader by letting their stories run parallel for a good bit before winding them together in unexpected ways. There are also outside forces that appear to be guiding the lives of the characters in the story; Rajaniemi fortunately only mentions them, letting them appear only very briefly—just hinting that their roles will be much bigger in future books before assuring it in the final chapter.

All the pieces come together in a whirlwind of storytelling, pushing the reader pell-mell across exotic locales and big ideas. Rajaniemi is an exciting new voice in speculative fiction, and The Quantum Thief promises more excitement and big ideas in future installments.

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