Thursday, 7 July 2011

‘The Quantum Thief’ – Hannu Rajaniemi (Tor/Gollancz)

If you were reading the blog yesterday (or if you just fancy scrolling down to yesterday’s post, either is good) then you’ll know all the reasons why I tend to steer clear of ‘Hard Sci-fi’. I’m not going to go into them again because, well... you know... just scroll down a bit ;o)

Having read all of that, you’re probably wondering how a sci-fi novel with the word ‘Quantum’ in the title has found its way onto the blog. After all, anything ‘quantum’ has to be pretty hard-core ‘Hard Sci-Fi’ doesn’t it? Well, you know how it is. Every so often you have to go back and revisit certain things just to see if your tastes have changed in the meantime. Just think of all the cool stuff that you could be missing out on if you don’t give things a second chance...
‘The Quantum Thief’ managed to bag itself some rave reviews from people whose opinions I trust so I decided that it would be the book that decided whether my opinions on ‘Hard Sci-Fi’ would change at all. They haven’t, they really haven’t... At the same time though, I couldn’t help but read ‘The Quantum Thief’ all the way through to the end. Confused? I was...

I don’t normally do this but I’ve copied and pasted the blurb from elsewhere, the reasons for this will become apparent very soon.

Jean le Flambeur is a post-human criminal, mind burglar, confidence artist and trickster. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his exploits are known throughout the Heterarchy - from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to steal their thoughts, to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of the Moving Cities of Mars. Except that Jean made one mistake. Now he is condemned to play endless variations of a game-theoretic riddle in the vast virtual jail of the Axelrod Archons - the Dilemma Prison - against countless copies of himself. Jean's routine of death, defection and cooperation is upset by the arrival of Mieli and her spidership, Perhonen. She offers him a chance to win back his freedom and the powers of his old self - in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed ...

‘The Quantum Thief’ is one of those rare books where I find myself very grateful for the blurb at the front; without it I would have had no idea what this book was about. Even with the blurb I had trouble getting at the story itself when it really mattered and I came close to putting the book down more than once.
Now I’ll happily admit that I approached this book as someone with a natural aversion to ‘Hard Sci-Fi’. This led to a whole load of stuff going right over my head and my feeling like the odd one out at a party where everyone else are all great mates. That’s not the book’s fault though and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that people don’t pick it up because of that. That’s my problem, not the books.

No, what got me was that ‘The Quantum Thief’ took this approach to what felt like ridiculous levels with new concepts appearing at all too regular intervals. Now you could argue that this is all about the world building and you would have a great point there as Rajaniemi has clearly gone to great lengths to set his story against a backdrop brimming with detail and invention; it’s all there for the reader willing to get stuck in.
The big problem I found though was that all this detail and invention got in the way of the story itself. There were points where I genuinely had no idea what was happening as Rajaniemi seemed intent on showing us another cool gadget or concept instead. ‘The Quantum Thief’ became a novel where the backdrop was set against the story rather than the other way round (the way it should have been). I don’t know about you but I’m after something a little more balanced than this and it all made for a very frustrating read.

That’s not to say that the plot didn’t put in an appearance from time to time however and this is what kept me reading. On the one hand this instances were also frustrating in that they kept showing me what ‘The Quantum Thief’ could have been like with a little more balance added to the mix. While I was reading though, I found that I had a great deal of fun hanging out with Jean Le Flambeur and marvelling at his innate ability to get out of trouble in spectacular style. There were also a couple of genuinely surprising moments that cast the plot (what I could make out of it) in an entirely new light and really made me hold my breath at just the right moment.

Were these moments enough though when set against the book as a whole? Ultimately I’d have to say that they weren’t. If more attention had been paid to raising the profile of the plot then it would have been a whole different deal. What we got though was a backdrop full of substance that felt like it was waiting for the players to come on stage and kick things off. The players never arrived on stage, what we got were a few muffled shouts offstage and that’s not good enough.
‘The Quantum Thief’ is a book full of potential that is ultimately unrealised. You might find me back for the sequel but I wouldn’t bet on it right now.

Six and a Half out of Ten


Daniel B. said...! Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year!

Alexander Field said...

Bummer about the book, nice cover though.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I totally agree with your review. I enjoyed this book, but it was a huge struggle for me to get to that point with it. The points you raised about it are spot on. Very good review.

Graeme Flory said...

Daniel B. - I'm really glad you enjoyed it, just didn't work for me though... :o(

Alexander - Both editions have gorgeous cover art don't they?

Sarah - Thanks! :o) Given all the good things I've heard people say about this book I really felt like I was the odd one out not liking this book. Glad to hear that I'm not entirely on my own here :o)

Erik Lundqvist said...

I completely agree. I love 'hard' SciFi and this book did not work for me. It was not even close. You need a dictionary to go with this book to make any sense out of it. I put it down pretty quickly.

The Reader said...

Hi Graeme

Spot on review, I had a smilar reaction to the story wherein the author was trying too hard to show off his world/universe building skills.

The plot was very much hidden amidst the setting and reading through was very much an endeavor due to that. I don't think I'll be continuing with this series.


Marduk said...

I think I agree with Daniel B... it was fantastic. And I think this is probably the first 'hard sci-fi' book I've ever read (I've only really read space opera before this, being more from a fantasy reading background). I think maybe it had something to do with the fact that I expected it to be so hard to understand and the fact I was pleasantly surprised to find that, no it wasn't, not really.