Hannu Rajaniemi

Gollancz (2010)

ISBN: 978 0 5750 8888 7

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

A lot of people are talking about The Quantum Thief. I noticed the talk before I read the book. What I noticed was the number of different writers that reviewers and readers compare Hannu Rajaniemi with. If one just goes by the descriptions, it appears that he borrows different elements from different writers and makes a patchwork quilt from them, or that he’s influenced by them. The reality is more complex than that.

There’s a significant amount of literary allusion in The Quantum Thief (largely French – or it may be that I can recognise largely the French allusions), some curious Hebrew words (why is “gevurot” never singular? is there a reason for this?) and references to Judaism, and a whole heap of mathematical and scientific ideas translated into language. I can’t comment on the science and mathematics, and it would be foolish to in any case, given Rajaniemi has a PhD in string theory – if that side of the novel doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it must be by choice, so I’m going to assume it stands up perfectly. Also, the only aspect of literary allusion worth commenting on in this context is if it’s successful. And it may not be French literary allusion at all, but allusions to allusions, or simply picking up material from anywhere. I am reminded, for instance, from time to time, of the contrasts and tone-changes and French echoes of Gankutsuou, an anime series loosely based on Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. That’s the problem with relying on a patchwork approach – it’s likely to lead one astray. However, it really is quite difficult not to refer to other writers and other tales when describing The Quantum Thief. This is the nature of the novel: it’s rich and referential. The French references are strongest though, and may well be intentional.

The reason we’re all trying to find equivalencies is because this novel only has a few near kin in the literary world. There aren’t that many books you can say “This is like…” and then find a match. This makes it quite difficult to work out who the readers of The Quantum Thief will be, apart from the obvious individuals who have a natural predilection for quantum physics and string theory, French literature and heist stories. Patching together an identity (a bit of Charles Stross here, a bit of Iain Banks there) at least gives the reader a hook to hang their decisions on.

I’m going to try to eschew the hooks and, instead, try to explain the novel.

The plot really isn’t that complicated: a thief gets one last chance, having been sprung from prison. How this trial/ordeal/quest is achieved – that’s the tangled bit.

Except that it really isn’t tangled at all. This is a book where you can’t let yourself be sucked in inexorably. It’s very straightforward if you step back and see the pattern. It’s even sequential, if one allows for characters taking on their past memories and re-enacting (with changes) events. The whole aim of the novel is to change the ending, in fact, to change how events are lived. This means that it’s much harder to read without that step back and without looking at patterns. With the patterns, it’s straightforward and a lot of fun.

The language is a bit rococo and can be very exuberant. Rajaniemi doesn’t distinguish between his specific use-for-the-novel words and standard usage, which makes for hard reading. In other words (sorry, that joke was inevitable), it’s important to work out what all the words mean by deducing from the moment they first appear. The world never simply slots into place – understanding has to be earned.

The ideas are seldom explained, either, which makes a pleasant change from the all-too-common SF writerly assumption that readers can’t work complex ideas out for themselves. It’s a very intelligent book, therefore, presumably for intelligent readers. The reader has to act as a detective, finding out what “gevulot” are and how they function, sorting out how time can operate as a currency, discover how policing is done, identify just how much is real and how much of reality is feigned in any given instance. All this can be deduced from what Rajaniemi gives us. In fact, the reader is enacting a question in miniature, putting together a different puzzle to the chief protagonist.

It’s refreshing to see a detective novel that operates at the plot level (although, as I explained earlier, it’s really not a detective novel, it’s really a one-last-heist novel, but the one-last-heist depends on detective work of a very specific kind) and also at the level of understanding how the universe operates and how people operate within that universe. It makes the universe look richer than it is and makes the world a lot more fun to play in. It also makes the first hundred or so pages slow.

However, The Quantum Thief is not a dry, technical novel. Beneath the high calculations and high thought is a sensual novel. This is a novel that needs time and attention and some patience, but it pays rich dividends for all three.