The Quantum Thief trilogy by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief by Hannu RajaniemiI’ve probably established that I’m a fan of giant robot stories by now, but that’s not actually where my fondest love lies, sci-fi-wise. Mecha and power armor are great features that I absolutely love, but they’re not a necessity. A story weak on sense of wonder (or some other draw) won’t pull me in just because it’s got Teh Mechs. And it’s hard to really put a finger on one thing or another that is my absolute favorite sci-fi setting or future, but I’ll be darned if I don’t go nuts for a good far future setting that’s barely recognizable as a human society.

Which is a pretty darn good description for the setting of Hannu Rajaniemi’s mostly-nameless post-cyberpunk trilogy. (I’ve heard it referred to as “The Gentleman Thief trilogy,” but that could very well be drawing from its inspiration rather than Rajaniemi himself.) Set sometime after a technological Singularity in the mediumly-distant past, the trilogy’s solar system is host to a number of civilizations descended from humankind. On Earth, more-or-less baseline humans live in a city tormented by a world-girdling desert of rogue nanotechnology in a distinctly Arabian Nights setting. On Mars, humans live for a time as human beings, and for a time as robotic “Quiet” who maintain the cities. The Oort cloud is home to a culture of a people descended from the Finnish living inside hollowed out comets. Finally, there is the Sobornost, a group of god-like uploads from the Singularity who more or less control the solar system, save for opposition from their only real competitors, the Zoku. The Zoku themselves are another group of uploads, and probably my favorite of the bunch; they’re descended from MMO guilds. Hundreds or thousands of years later, when the trilogy happens, they’re nerds with recognizable tastes who now sometimes don material forms to have LAN parties as a cultural ritual.

In the midst of all this is Jean le Flambeur, the gentleman thief. Apparently based on Maurice Leblanc’s Lupin (which I’ve not had the pleasure of reading), Jean has long since ran afoul of the Sobornost and has been reduced to a single iteration locked inside a Dilemma Prison in the outer solar system, forced to repeatedly play simulations of the Prisoner’s Dilemma with other inmates as a kind of rehabilitation. Fortunately or maybe unfortunately for him, however, one of the Sobornost minds has use for his skills and sends the Oortian Mieli to break him out of the Dilemma Prison.

Most of The Quantum Thief takes place in the Martian city of the Oubliette. Time is a currency here, and when you run out, your mind is uploaded to the “Quiet” for several decades to earn enough time to live on again. (The book predates Andrew Niccol’s film In Time by about a year.) The portions that don’t directly follow Jean or Mieli center on amateur detective Isidore Beautrelet, hired by a wealthy citizen to investigate a note promising that Jean le Flambeur would be breaking into his mansion during a lavish party. As you can probably guess, hijinks ensue, and by the end of the trilogy, the stakes broaden out quite a bit, driven by the individual agendas of Jean, Mieli, the various Sobornost minds, and anyone else with the clout to make things happen in the solar system.

I enjoyed The Quantum Thief enough to preorder its followups (The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel) as they became available– which is high praise. Usually, only John C. Wright gets a pre-order from me. Like I said, I like strange far futures and Rajaniemi’s future is probably one of the strangest. So that’s a selling point for me.

It’s also the source of my biggest criticism of it, however. As much fun as I had with these books, as much as I enjoyed seeing them unfold and seeing Rajaniemi playing around with his ideas, the man’s narrative style is unforgiving. I’ve literally been reading science fiction for almost as long as I’ve been able to read; I hit A Wrinkle In Time around 7 and Pocket Book’s Star Trek novels around 9. I’m not exactly a newcomer to the genre, and there were times when I was still struggling to grasp the details of Rajaniemi’s universe. Some things were fairly clear, like time as a currency and the use of “exomemory” on Mars. But other things, like the layers of virtual privacy that the Martians call gevulot, required some research to get the gist of.  Usually you can let the strangeness of a story wash over you and get the idea from the shape of it; there’s so much strange here that trying that will suck you out to sea. And going into each novel with a year or so between them was harder than normal because of that– particularly when The Fractal Prince moved the events to Earth and The Causal Angel to Saturn, both vastly different settings from the Oubliette.

But again, I own these books in hardcover, two of which were bought when I knew how dense and obscure they’d be. They’re on my list to come back to one day and reread; I have a feeling that they’ll reward a rereading. Probably not like Wolfe. It’s a different sort of novel, and a different sort of dense. But I do feel like they merit a return, and probably consideration by other readers.

The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur)