The Quantum Thief is the first novel of Hannu Rajaniemi, a Finn currently residing in Scotland. Rajaniemi (which sounds a bit Indian for those not used to Finnish names, I think) has a Ph.D. in serious science behind him. Having a doctorate seems to be a good omen for writers of sci-fi — Kim Stanley Robinson and China Miéville spring to mind. The novel is full of all sorts of fun and draws on lots of delicious influences. It’s a bit Arsene Lupin, a bit Sherlock Holmes, a bit Iain M. Banks, a bit William Gibson, and a bit Alastair Reynolds. Alongside all of the hard and soft sci-fi and cyberpunk tropes, lingo and concepts are plucked from Russia, Judaism, and revolutionary France.
The main character is a master thief, Jean le Flambeur (gambler), whom we meet while he is incarcerated in a trippy futuristic space prison in which he is forced to play infinite prisoner’s dilemma style games against the other inmates. This stuff is great but doesn’t last long. Before we know it he’s been busted out by Mieli, an Oort Cloud warrior woman who has been coerced into working for a mysterious and powerful other who needs Jean to do some thieving for her.
Jean, though, realises that he’d previously locked away some necessary aspect of his memories/personality on Mars. So, putting the big job on hold, off they fly to the Red Planet in Mieli’s highly Culture-esque ship, Perhonen.
This Mars is a fascinating place. After some disastrous terraforming mishaps, the sole city of Mars, Oubliette, is forced to constantly move on ginormous stilted legs (actually, I’m not sure of the exact mechanism of movement, but I remember it as being legs anyway). Via some sort of über augmented reality system, all perception is mediated through exomemory, allowing you to appear as an invisible blur to whomever you wish (lots of clever plotting stuff centres around this). Individuals alternate every few years between being being alive and active and being a golem-like quiet. Quiets are powerful making-and-doing machines imbued with a person’s consciousness. Being a quiet earns a person a certain amount of time credits that are spent when in a non-quiet state. These gradually tick down and can be used to purchase goods and services (e.g., you could spend a few kiloseconds on a taxi ride). The more you spend, the sooner you return to your quiet state. There’s lots of interesting things Rajaniemi does with this concept, too.
In their quest to reunite Jean with his missing personality components, he and Mieli encounter numerous interesting characters: superhuman vigilantes with awesome names (the kind of things new Timelord characters would be called if the writers of Doctor Who ever thought that was a good idea), post-human gamer clans, and cyber-god slave-clones. The best character is a Holmesian master detective, Isidore, who seeks to match himself against this newly arrived thief.
I very much enjoyed this book. I liked the characters’ moral ambiguity, and I liked the hugely inventive and colorful solar system that Rajaniemi has sketched out. I liked the lack of infodumps and being asked to negotiate plot/backstory lacunae. There’s an overload of opaque lingo that takes quite a bit of parsing, but I think I was just getting to grips with it by the end of the book. I look forward to the next one when I get further pay off for all that work.