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A Review of "The Quantum Thief"

In keeping with the tradition of making every review about me instead of the work I'm discussing, I should open with a disclaimer: I read The Quantum Thief under false pretenses.  Somewhere along the way I got it into my head that this was an overly-complicated book about time travel, and I wanted to make sure it didn't cover the same ideas I wanted to use in my own time travel novel, which will probably come out in 2020 or so.

This is not really a good way or reason to read a book, by the way.  Reading is supposed to be a journey you take with the author so you can learn, expand your horizons, or at least have a good time.  It's not supposed to be an exercise in vanity.

The good news is, the book was good enough that I got over my superficial baggage and had a grand time anyway.

The Quantum Thief is the story of (and apparently first in a series of books revolving around) Jean le Flambeur, a swanky gentleman thief in a ridiculous future world with all kinds of implausible-but-still-kinda-cool technology.  In this particular tale, Flambeur is broken out of a space prison in order to help a religious zealot (and possible terrorist?) infiltrate a rich guy's mansion on Mars and steal some shit as part of a bigger conspiracy. In the process, they and we learn about the rich history of conflicts between social classes within Mars and without.

The book is notorious for its complexity.  Author Hannu Rajaniemi offers multiple layers of challenge for the reader - not only does his universe have a lot of convoluted technology that's hard to describe, but he also invented a lot of new words and terms to describe it with virtually no exposition to help out.  So you end up being thrown into this crazy world that you have to decipher from context clues.

It's a challenging enough read that I'll readily admit I may have missed some important plot points.  I'm pretty sure I got the basics - enough that I was able to stay interested and follow along, at least.  Ultimately, I'm not sure if the complexity was worth it.  What really is the trade-off of making such a dense world?  Sure, on the one hand you have a more "immersive" experience where nobody breaks character to explain things the way nobody would if they all lived there, but on the other hand, I can only explain maybe 60% of the ending.  So, what's the point, really?  Was it just a contest so smug people can feel proud of themselves for figuring things out?  Or am I missing a deeper thematic meaning that was achieved through the story's opacity?

In fairness to Rajaniemi, there certainly is room for thematic growth due to the complexity.  The bulk of the story involves a complicated technology called "gevulot" that is kind of like a communal memory bank with individualized privacy settings.  People with access to more or better gevulot can obscure more of their actions from the memory bank, and those without technology are basically under 24/7 surveillance that permanently stores all of their indiscretions and mistakes in a public record.  We're meant to sympathize with the have-nots, who eventually get embroiled in a quasi-revolution that may or may not bring change to Mars (this is where the book started to lose me), so the sense of culture shock and helplessness does put you in the right frame of mind to sympathize with people who are helplessly beaten down by a complex system they barely understand.

Still.  I didn't really understand at least a third of the book and I don't have time to re-read it.  Is that what you wanted, dude?  Why?

But let's ignore that argument.  The important question is whether or not I enjoyed the book, and I did.  Quite a bit.

Rajaniemi is something of an outlier in the science-fiction that I've read because he's got such a good understanding of human nature.  There's a terrible cliche of spec fiction writers being socially inept dweebs, and it rings true when you read stilted dialogue and arbitrary character choices.  (I'm looking at you, Crichton, Cook, and King.)  Sadly, from my experience, it seems like only a precious few writers know how to create characters that behave like actual humans.  But then again, maybe I just haven't read enough.

The point is, Rajaniemi's characters allow him to be very funny in a relaxed and natural way.  There's tons of unexpected laughs in this book - great moments of social awkwardness and dramatic irony that come across like Curb Your Enthusiasm in space.  The jokes aren't the book's primary focus, but when they come up, they hit hard.

He's so good at capturing little social interactions - particularly in the context of a work with new and bizarre rules of etiquette - that I'd love to recommend this book to everyone.  Unfortunately, the challenge of deciphering his world might get in the way.  So I'll put an asterisk on that: I recommend it to anyone who has at least some interest in science-fiction.  When it's not being flashy, it's just a good ol' fashioned character study of a bunch of confused and fragile egos, and that's always a good thing.

PS - The book has virtually nothing to do with time travel, by the way.  Looks like my novel is in the clear.