A Mind Made of Diamond: Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief Could Be The Science Fiction Debut of the Year
“Ideas are cheap… It’s all in the execution.”
– The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Recently released by Tor Books, Rajaniemi’s first novel is an intriguing fusion of hard science fiction à la Greg Egan, Stephen Baxter, etc. and labyrinthinely plotted Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse mystery that features a master thief and an intuitive, young amateur detective against a breathtaking backdrop of a colonized Mars.
But before I get into the review, I’d be remiss not to mention a few noteworthy tidbits about this fascinating man. Born in Ylivieska, Finland, and currently living in Edinburgh, Scotland, Rajaniemi is the director and co-founder of ThinkTank Maths, a company that specializes in advanced mathematics and artificial intelligence based services to a wide variety of business sectors, including energy, defense, and digital technology. He studied mathematical physics at the University of Oulu and Cambridge and has a Ph.D. in string theory. And according to his website (http://tomorrowelephant.net), he likes elephants.
The novel begins with master thief Jean le Flambeur trapped in a quantum prison run by the Archons, immortal minds who work for the Sobornost, a governing collective that rules the Inner Solar System. Imprisoned in an infinity of glass cells where he is forced to confront neighboring adversaries (duplicated versions of himself) again and again in simulated battles to the death that are supposed to aid rehabilitation, le Flambeur just might be losing his mind.
When he is miraculously rescued by an enigmatic woman named Mieli and Perhonen, her witty Oortian spidership – they just barely escape the “diamond doughnut” and evade Archon bladeships in an intense (albeit quick) sequence – and taken to the surreal Moving City of the Oubliette on Mars, le Flambeur is tasked by Mieli’s mysterious employer with finding an associative memory, a link to some kind of clue he masterfully hid from himself that could potentially lead to unbelievable riches – or planetary destruction…
All the while, the legendary thief experiences deep cognitive doubt: “Perhaps the old philosophers were right, and we are living in a simulation, playthings of some transhuman gods…”
Initially, this was a tough read to get into. Rajaniemi essentially throws the reader into the deep end of the pool – there are no infodumps regarding backstory, terminology, races, etc. It’s sink or swim early on – some readers may find the storyline too challenging but those who stick with it will be rewarded with an almost sublime reading experience powered by diamond-sharp speculation and simply breathtaking description. In this short example, Rajaniemi describes the Oubliette:
“The deep indigo of the Hellas Basin sky above, and the clouds of white gliders, huge wingspans clinging to thin Martian air. The tall, intricate buildings, like belle époque Paris without the burden of gravity, spires of red-tinted stone, wearing walkways and balconies. Spidercabs scampering up their sides, leaping across rooftops. The shining dome of the zoku colony near the Dust District where the red cloud raised by the city’s feet billows upwards like a cloak. The gentle swaying, if you stand very still: a reminder that this is a city that travels, carried on the backs of Titans.”
Anyone who reads The Quantum Thief will agree: Rajaniemi has – to steal a line from the novel – “a mind made of diamond.” I haven’t even skimmed the surface of all of the ideas and images in this novel – a transhuman society evolved from “pre-Collapse” MMORPG gaming clans, machines powered by downloaded human consciousnesses, exomemory, hybrid biological weapons called phoboi, etc.
Bottom line: This debut is a “must read” for anyone who calls themselves a fan of science fiction.
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.
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