Gollancz, 2010, 330 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-575-08887-0
Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief was easily the most-anticipated first SF novel of 2010. Helped along by enthusiastic praise by People in the Know (starting with Charles Stross, who not only provided an eye-popping cover blurb, but started talking about the novel months before publication), The Quantum Thief was eagerly awaited; an anomaly given the author’s thin bibliography at shorter lengths –The last first SF novel with so much buzz was Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and it came after several Hugo-nominated short stories.
A quick look at the cover blurb is enough to sustain any enthusiasm: We’re promised an exciting future adventure filled with reliable SF buzzwords from bizarre post-humans to dazzling hard SF. Charles Stross’s cover blurb is designed to make any jaded hard-SF fan perk up (“Hard to admit, but I think he’s better at this stuff than I am. The best first SF novel I’ve read in many years.”), and virtually everything else about the book seems optimized to appeal to genre SF quirks. Almost as an afterthought, we’re led to understand that the plot outline has something to do with a super-competent gentleman thief, a daring prison escape and an even more daring heist.
After reading the book, a few things are still true: The Quantum Thief is indeed the debut SF novel of the year and it does herald the arrival of a major new talent. It’s invigorating, it’s filled with ideas and it’s firmly steeped inside the core assumptions of the genre.
But you’re going to have to work in order to enjoy it, perhaps a bit more than you may expect.
In-between gevulots, googols, Tzaddikim, Sobornost and spimescapes, there’s enough new vocabulary in The Quantum Thief to make you feel as if you’re learning a new language in order to appreciate the novel. The opening segment is like being thrown in a lake with vague instructions on how to swim. For a while, the narrative hovers at the edge of understanding, with just enough connecting tissue to keep going, but with a strong sense of alienation that underscores how different this future can feel.
But this is a classic case of how high-end genre Science Fiction should work: From incluing to demonstrative definitions, SF has developed its own strategies for presenting imagined worlds, and Rajaniemi is playing that particular world-building game as well as anyone else currently writing. It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that SF readers will relish; indeed, it’s one of the reasons why a lot of us read Science Fiction in the first place.
At least there’s some comfort to be found in the plotting. While the setting of The Quantum Thief is strange, its heist-based narrative structure is far more traditional: Our gentleman-thief protagonist is clearly inspired by Arsène Lupin, and the amateur-detective going against him cleanly echoes the traditional narrative structure of those novels. No matter how tangled the technology and its resulting society, the storytelling heart of Rajaniemi’s debut is pure classical form.
Still, I suspect that the main complaint against The Quantum Thief will be that while world-building is a good thing in theory, it’s no excuse to make the novel harder to read than it should be. Rajaniemi is showing off with this first novel, and his prose style calls attention to itself by being a bit more difficult (dense, verbose, indulgent; take your pick of adjectives) than SF’s usually more transparent standards. It feels a lot like early China Mieville’s work in how it delights in baroque prose pyrotechnics; but readers will note that current-day Miéville seems eager to strip down his style.
While I have my own reservations about the final result, there’s little doubt that as a debut SF novel, The Quantum Thief is a solid success. Rajaniemi is writing from the perspective of someone who understands and loves Science Fiction, and so the novel is aimed squarely at other genre-SF readers. It reminds me a lot of Stross’ own debut Singularity Sky, and considering the progress that Stross has made since then, the parallel suggests that Rajaniemi is a major author in the making.
Constrained to a city on Mars, The Quantum Thief offers only a glimpse at the universe Rajaniemi wants to play with: The inevitable sequels have an entire universe to explore. Considering that Rajaniemi has already sold an entire trilogy, we can only imagine how good he’s going to be by the time we’ll get to read the third one.