Fearful Symmetries

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10 July, 2013

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Looking at a bio of Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi I see that he has a degree in mathematics and a PhD in Mathematical Physics. He sounds like an erudite gentleman and his novel, The Quantum Thief, certainly reflects this. In the simplest terms, this book is a pulpy detective story with a lot of Phildickean reality bending and some heavy duty world building.

It begins with Jean le Flambeur in prison. But not just any prison. Indeed, he is in the Dilemma Prison and right from the get-go Rajaniemi 's background is evident as le Flambeur is serving his time acting out game theory against copies of himself. One day he is sprung by a woman named Mieli and they steal away in her ship, the Perhonen (sounds Finnish to me), which is sentient. In fact the ship has a personality which is alternately snarky and salacious.

Mieli, it turns out, is acting in the service of her goddess and towards something called the Great Common Task and she needs le Flambeur's help. While Mieli's ultimate goal is shrouded in mystery, their mission takes them to a Maritan city called Oubliette. There le Flambeur seeks out his past when he had a different name. He has forgotten it but his former self has left clues.

With Mieli and le Flambeur on their way we are introduced to a detective on the Oubliette named Isidore Beautrelet. As he solves the mystery of the murder of a chocolatier, the reader learns about the odd yet very rich world that is the Oubliette. It is a place where time is used as currency. You have an allotted amount of time to live in your "normal" body and, when your time runs out, your "gogol" or your soul is extracted and put into another body, a "Quiet", which does the menial labor that keeps the city running. People can communicate non-verbally by exposing their gogols to others and regulate this exposure by using "gevulots" which are akin to privacy settings on a Facebook profile. Indeed,

Beautrelet is hired by a wealthy man whose time is almost op and will be moving on as a Quiet soon. The man is throwing a going away party but learns that le Flambeur will be crashing it in order to steal something of value. And so le Flambeur and Beautrelet are on a collision course. Along the way we learn that all is not well in the Oubleitte with various factions working against one another and a civil war on the horizon. Beautrelet works with The Gentleman, a Tzaddikim which is a group of vigilantes that protect the citizenry against gogol piracy. The Tzaddikim are in conflict with the Cryptarchs who run the city and seek to control the citizens.

The Quantum Thief is a very dense novel. le Flambeur's story is multi-layered as there is his adventures with Mieli as well as his quest to recover his past. Mieli has her own motivations which remain obscured, for the most part. Beautrelet's tale brings in the detailed and often times confusing world of the Oubliette. I give Rajaniemi lots of credit for refraining from having characters give Gogol for Dummies type of lectures to the reader. On the other hand, I feel he could have done a better job in getting the reader up to speed on his concepts. If you stick with it, you'll eventually get the gist but I think most readers will be stuck with at least some confusing reading. The story also gets credit from me for beginning as a tale of individuals and their private quests to encompassing the politics of a whole world. It was a joy to read how Rajaniemi shifts the focus from two characters to their roles in the middle of grand stratagems playing out on a large scale.

The Quantum Thief had a vaguely Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? feel to it with a future private eye and the Oubliette having a dystopian air about it. Here Mercerism is replaced with an overlay of Internet concepts brought down to the personal level – the gevulots, etc.

Overall this is a wonderful book but I have to admit that it did get confusing and a bit frustrating trying to piece together the world that Rajaniemi has created. It is an interesting one, to be sure, but it takes a while to get one's bearings in it. Some passages read like Rajaniemi is writing for fellow mathematicians and physicists which can be off-putting. But, if you stick with it and re-read some passages it will eventually become clear. Or at least as clear as the author is willing to make it.

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|| Palmer, 1:32 PM


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