Review of THE QUANTUM THIEF by Hannu Rajaniemi
Tor, May 2011
He's been in prison for what seems an eternity, forced to play "games" that are, perhaps, supposed to educate him but that result in his "death" countless times. When a woman breaks him out, he feels a certain gratitude--but not enough to give up his thieving ways. Fortunately, perhaps, the woman doesn't want him to give up those ways. She wants him to steal...for her.
Years in prison play a part in thief Jean le Flambeur's memory loss, but there's something else. Somehow, he's locked his memories away from himself. Returning to Mars gives him flashes of these memories but he needs to meet up with his old friends once more, needs to ask them to open their own memories to him.
Young detective Isidore isn't sure that the legendary thief, Jean le Flambeur is real. Still, when a letter appears promising that Jean le Flambeur is planning on making an appearance and a daring theft on the death-night of one of Mars's richest men, Isidore is hired to handle security. The first clue is the biggest. A sheet of letter paper appears instantaneously in the system exomemory. Either miracles have returned, or there's a flaw in the exomemory. But since everything about life depends on the exomemory, Isidore is faced with a serious inability to determine what clues around him are real, and which may merely be plants.
As Isidore and Jean circle one another, the reader becomes aware that both are merely playing out their parts in a bigger drama--something involving the entire planet of Mars and going beyond that to the post-humans throughout what's left of the solar system.
I enjoyed the way author Hannu Rajaniemi played with the coming merge of human and computer intelligence. It is certainly plausible that human and machine memory may become intertwined, with humans first depending on machine memory to supplement their own recollections but eventually with computer code impinging on flesh and blood memory as well. Similarly, bionic eyes may allow us to see far more clearly than merely human eyes can ever accomplish, but they also allow us to see things that aren't there...and to unsee things that are. Rajaniemi plays with how this will impinge on human relations, some of the dangers of putting human minds into computers, and tosses in some nice fight scenes where human and machine become highly integrated.
Rajaniemi does a nice job throwing us into the story. Rather than explain the technologies underlying the post-human civilization he writes about, Rajaniemi tells us what's going on and leaves it to the reader to determine what some of those strange words mean and how, exactly, human sight and memory can be limited in ways that cannot today be accomplished.
I would have prefered that Rajaniemi do less hiding the story objectives for our primary characters. Isidore's objectives are fairly straightforward, but Jean's is complicated both because it changes as he recovers more of his old memories but also, I think, because Rajaniemi wanted to keep us in the dark. It was often hard to figure out exactly what was going on and why--an effect Rajaniemi may have been attempting to achieve and one that's popular with some speculative fiction. I found it distancing me from the story and from my caring about the characters.
One of the exciting potentials of speculative/science fiction is that it allows us to consider directions that technology may take us. Certainly the integration of computer and human intelligence is already under weigh. To Rajaniemi's credit, he recognizes and offers both advantages and drawbacks to what seems an inevitable movement. It felt, sometimes, as if he were working too hard at being clever with his writing and deliberately obscure for the purpose of confusing the reader. These are frequent symptoms of a new writer feeling for his style--which Rajaniemi is. I'm excited about the potential and hope that Rajaniemi delivers on his promise with future stories.
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