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Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

quantum thief Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief, the debut novel from Finnish speculative fiction author (and uber-smart string theory expert) Hannu Rajaniemi, has been the source of much gossip and speculation since selling on the strength of its first chapter for a number involving plenty of zeroes. Its a novel Ive been eagerly anticipating, so I was rather delighted when the lovely team at Gollancz Australia sent me a copy for review. Needless to say, having spent the past day trying to get my tiny humanities-oriented brain around this complex slab of techno-zaniness, I can see why the book has become such a sensation, but at the same time Im rather intimidated by the thing.


The Quantum Thief to me recalls a whole mish-mash of sci-fi notables, with Justina Robsons post-human'Natural History coming to mind first and foremost, followed by M John Harrisons brilliant but utterly incomprehensible Light; theres also'a good old dose of Alfred Besters classic spec-fic mystery'The Demolished Man (although here the whole mind-reading bit is replaced by techno-babble). Oddly enough, I found myself thinking also of Scott Lynchs rich and darkly humorous The Lies of Locke Lamora, and Adam Robertss ultra-weird'Stone, the prison setting of which I felt covered much of the same literary real estate. 'The Quantum Thief begins (if it begins at all, given the hapless manner in which time is thrown around in this book) with an utterly baffling scene in which thief Jean Le Flambeur continuously enacts a scene that I suspect draws on the famous prisoner dilemma, where he finds himself battling another version of himself time and time again until the appropriate empathetic outcome is eventually met. This never happens, however, as le Flambeur is sprung from prison by the tough-talking Miele, who has a mysterious assignment for himone that involves forgetting any of the good that his empathetic efforts in prison might have done him, and that requires him to reacquaint himself with his thieving past. The Bester-esque crops up here, of course: pitted against le Flambeur is the architecture-student-turned-detective Isidore Beautrelet, who is determined to entrap the famed thief.

My thoughts

At least I think thats what this story is about. To be honest, the whole thing flew a little bit over my head, and despite my having mentally gone over it a few times, I suspect that a re-read is necessary for me to truly understand the more complex machinations of the plot, and the various nods and hints along the way. Overall,'I have to admit appreciated this book rather more than I enjoyed it, and despite my love of lexical calisthenics and my appreciation for non-linear plots, theres something about The Quantum Thief that feels somewhat ersatz. At a sentence level its all very beautiful, and theres all the whizz-bangery even Stephen Hawking could hope for, but really, beneath this sexy literary patina, this book is all a bit rickety. The opening section, for example, is all but incomprehensible, and takes up a good fifty or so pages of a book that comes in at just over three hundredrather a lot of pages, one thinks, for a scene that has very little impact on the remainder of the novel. This emphasis on cool ideas over narrative relevance is an issue throughout the book: Beautrelets previous commission, the death of a chocolatier, for example, is given several chapters of page time despite it being, as noted, a previous commission, not the one thats the focus of the book. And while I, like most readers, have a soft spot for all things cocoa, there are times when it should be stricken from ones diet. Other plot-slowing issues include the gratuitous amounts of time spent at balls and at parties, and also the random chapter-long interjections from various characters whose relevance I couldnt fathom (indeed, theres an entire scene towards the end of the book involving two unnamed characters whose identity I still cant determine).

But then on the flip-side, theres the breathless shenanigans that comprise the rest of the book. While the novel is essentially detailing the cat-and-mouse game between the two main characters, this relatively straight-forward plot is hidden beneath layers and layers of thematic trickery and complex jargon. To be fair, some of this stuff is amongst the most interesting of the bookthe concept of time as currency, for example, with those whose time is up being reduced to an existence as a Quiet. Theres also the Iron Council-esque idea of a moving city, and the notion of gevulot (borders), a sort of privacy shield used by citizens to shield their inner lives from others (a far cry from our own Facebook-obsessed societyor perhaps the result of it). But while all of this is quite fascinating, it plays little more than a middling role in the book, and serves sort of as a highly attractive if not especially functional window dressing. Indeed, with the combination of complex conceptual ideas and labyrinthine world-building, the book begins to collapse under its own weightI cant help but feel that if Rajaniemi had been allowed more than the debut novelists standard 80-100k words, and the narrative stretched out accordingly,'The Quantum Thief would be quite a different beast again. Of course, given the highly abrupt ending and the but wait, theres more epilogue, it looks as though theres more to come in this particular world.

The onomastics that Rajaniemi employs throughout the novel can also be a problem, and I found myself a little bemused by some of his terminology. I wont bother trying to tease out the techy q-bits and the what have you, because Ill be the first to admit that my mathematical ability extends only as far as to be able to do my taxes in as acceptable a manner as needed to not be arrested, but some of the other choices felt odd to begin with, and then further disjointed when contrasted with the others. The gogols, for example, clearly come from the famous (and fabulous) novel Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, and while its a fun little nod, it feels too clever for its own good. Dead Souls is such an underappreciated and rarely read novel even now that it seems utterly bizarre that this term should have any sort of relevance in a post-Earth world. Theres also the use of various clan names: zoku, from the Japanese, sobornost from the Russian, and tazaddkim from the Hebrew; and certain characters who are named for those in other novels, or for concepts (Mieli, meaning mind, for example). Its sort of like reading A Clockwork Orange without the internal consistency.

Finally, and this to me is the major downfall of the book, the emphasis on techno-geekery and quantum-whatsits is to the distinct detriment of the characters. Were given little more than a fleeting understanding of even the main players in the book, and though there are a few moving scenes where they become humanised, such as Beautrelets falling for Raymonde (again), these are few and far between. And without deep or likeable characters, a book like this becomes a tremendous slog.


The Quantum Thief is no doubt the speculative fiction debut of 2010: its a complex and zany creation that is yelling as loudly as it possibly can that science fiction can be proper literature, too. But the downside is that amongst all of this crazy techiness and creative worldbuilding the plot and the characters are distinctly underwhelming: not only is the novel challenging to the point of being hopelessly confusing, but theres nary a sympathetic character with whom to share the ride. As noted before, I appreciated this novel for its creativity and novel approach to the post-human world, but I cant truly say I enjoyed itbut hard sci-fi buffs with a stronger understanding of all things quantum may feel differently.

Rating: star Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemistar Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemiblankstar Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemiblankstar Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemiblankstar Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (okay)

With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy

Purchase The Quantum Thief from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA


  1. Thanks for the great review! For some reason, this reminds me of How to Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu. Also a wonderful, creative, literary novel, but its guilty of being TOO challenging a read.

  2. Stephanie /

    Ah, Ive seen Yus book plugged around the blogosphere, and have been meaning to get to it. Usually I love avant garde, crazy fiction that does all sorts of made things with narrative, plot, and style, but this one just felt like too much gloss and to little substance.

  3. In Yus defense, its not glossy. In fact its very beautifully styled, with a raw, technical prose that serves its narrative well. But the story is convoluted (which is fair enough given the complexity of time travel narratives). But I think what made it drag for me is that the whole thing is a giant existential metaphor for the existence of humanity, which is lovely, but you cant quite shake the feeling that the author is showing off what great technique he is. (Which, to be fair, he does have).

  4. Stephanie /

    Ah, I think thats where the Rajaniemi falls down. I dont think the technique and style is truly there, whereas in Yus case is clearly is. I think Ill have to check out the Yu and see how I go :)

  5. Cool! Well, when you find it, let me know how you get on with it!

  6. Great review. I hate it when a novel is over my head. Sometimes I blame myself but many times it is the fault of the author. To be honest though, your review does make me want to read the book.

  7. Stephanie /

    Its certainly a worthwhile read, and Im not surprised that its received the reception that it has. Its definitely over my head (Im a soft sci-fi person at heart, and come from a humanities background), but theres certainly enough there to intrigue. If you do pick it up, let me know what you think! :)