Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hannu Rajaniemi - The Quantum Thief

Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief, Gollancz, 2010.

This is a far-future novel, and its characters are post-human. A warrior called Mieli rescues a thief from prison, asking him to steal something for her. Together they explore the complex society of the Oubliette, a moving city on Mars. Meanwhile, a young detective, Isidore, is hired to solve a mystery. The city is policed by a sort of vigilante group known as the Tzaddikim.

The themes of this work are time and memory. Time serves as a currency, and people who run out of time become Quiet, meaning that they are taken to serve in the maintenance of the moving city, in a different form, for a while. People's memories are constantly edited, and their interactions are controlled by a complex set of permissions, known as Gevulot. People can choose how, or even if, others will see them, whether to reveal their name or identity, and whether to allow the memory of an encounter to be stored. This inconsistency of memory makes people's perception of reality transient, allows privacy and anonimity to be taken to an extreme degree, and poses challenges for discovering the truth about anything.

Gradually, the thief regains some of his past memories. The different threads of the plot come together, with characters meeting and secrets being discovered. There are clever tricks, fight scenes, advanced weapons, and the development of real human emotions.

The story keeps the reader at a distance, with important aspects kept hidden until the reader learns about them when they happen, or when one of the characters reveals them, but not before. It is often difficult to identify with the characters when they are so much more powerful than us, but this is balanced by their human stories, gradually explored and revealed.

The ending leads to dramatic changes, and this is an interesting future I might enjoy visiting again in other books or short stories. I hope for stories set in this universe that introduce and welcome readers to the setting, rather than mystify them.

One thing that bothered me was the misuse of a Hebrew term. While the author uses the noun Tzaddik (singular) and Tzaddikim (plural) correctly, he employs the term Gevulot (= boundaries) as both a noun and an adjective, and seems unaware that it is plural (the singular would be Gevul). Readers unfamiliar with Hebrew would not notice this, but I think words from real languages should be used properly, where SF writers prefer not to invent new words for their new concepts. This may seem like a minor point, but it did irritate me, and I wonder whether it would be possible to correct this if/when the novel is reprinted.

I had mixed feelings about this novel. It appeals as an intelligent, literary, and aesthetic experience, but is somewhat unclear and distant. It may appeal to readers seeking an intellectual challenge, and to those who enjoy post-human settings more than I seem to.

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