Book Review: The Quantum Thief

The Quantum Thief 
By: Hannu Rajaniemi
Published By: Gollancz
Publication Date: September 2010
Page Count: 336
Source: Library
Adult - Science Fiction

Jean LeFlambeur, the solar system’s most notorious thief, is doomed to spend eternity facing off against himself in the game theoretic Dilemma Prison. Then without warning, Mieli, a beautiful woman with vast powers and little patience for LeFlambeur’s shtick, breaks him out to do a job for her in exchange for his freedom. Will LeFlambeur and Mieli survive each other? Can they even trust the patron that brought them together? 

For all that the “one last heist” concept has been done many times, Rajaniemi puts his own distinctive stamp on the trope in The Quantum Thief. I have to give massive props to the Dilemma Prison in which prisoners are forced to repeatedly live out the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” of game theory fame until they learn to cooperate and be good citizens. (For those not familiar with PD, here’s a quick video to explain. Beginning the book with LeFlambeur’s prison experience is a smashing introduction to both the main character’s thought process and also to the hyper-digital world in which he lives. 

Another distinctive element to The Quantum Thief is the Martian gevulot which allows each person to decide what information about them will be available to others down to the smallest detail. Somehow, and the book is a bit vague on this, each person’s perception is filtered through their gevulot. If you don’t want to be seen (feeling private, up to something nefarious, or even just a bad hair day), you just set your gevulot to full privacy and all people can see of you is a fuzzy place marker so they don’t bump into you. Pretty crazy, no? 

 The gevulot also gave rise to one of the things I never did figure out about The Quantum Thief. Many of Mieli’s modifications were not allowed on Mars because the Martians wanted to keep Mars for unmodified humans. Rajaniemi did not fully explain, then, how the gevulot came to be, and how that didn’t violate the Martian rules. Perhaps that will be further explained in the second novel. 

 When you read this book, you definitely want to do it on a day where you’re feeling pretty smart. There are a lot of strange things happening in The Quantum Thief (some technical, some not), so be prepared to hold the head-scratching items to the side until they are explained, and just enjoy the ride. Some of my personal confusion may have been due to the fact that I alternated listening to the audio version and reading hard copy. I recommend hard copy for this one; there were enough unfamiliar items and concepts that being able to see the words Rajaniemi used, rather than just hearing them, helped a lot.

Jean le Flambeur gets up in the morning and has to kill himself before his other self can kill him first. Just another day in the Dilemma Prison. Rescued by the mysterious Mieli and her flirtatious spacecraft, Jean is taken to the Oubliette, the Moving City of Mars, where time is a currency, memories are treasures, and a moon-turned-singularity lights the night. Meanwhile, investigator Isidore Beautrelet, called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier, finds himself on the trail of an arch-criminal, a man named le Flambeur...

Indeed, in his many lives, the entity called Jean le Flambeur has been a thief, a confidence artist, a posthuman mind-burgler, and more. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his deeds are known throughout the Heterarchy, from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of Mars. In his last exploit, he managed the supreme feat of hiding the truth about himself from the one person in the solar system hardest to hide from: himself. Now he has the chance to regain himself in all his power—in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed.

The Quantum Thief is a breathtaking joyride through the solar system several centuries hence, a world of marching cities, ubiquitous public-key encryption, people who communicate via shared memory, and a race of hyper-advanced humans who originated as an MMORPG guild. But for all its wonders, The Quantum Thief is also a story powered by very human motives of betrayal, jealousy, and revenge.