The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi (2010)
This was nominated for the Locus Award, and was runner-up for the Campbell Memorial award, and rightly so. ‘The Quantum Thief’ exists on the same level as the work of John C Wright in a future where definitions of the words ‘alive’, ‘real’ and ‘identity’ become very fluid indeed.
Jean le Flambeur, a famous thief, is incarcerated in a Dilemma prison of glass cubes where the inmates while away the day shooting and killing their immediate neighbours, only they don’t die permanently.
Jean is very soon busted out by Mieli, a young lady with a sentient ship. She has been sent on this mission – whose ultimate purpose is somewhat vague – by a powerful female entity. Jean is meant to do something in the Oubliette, a city which peglegs its way across Mars like some vast Wellsian war machine. The problem is doubly difficult since Jean has very little memory of his own past and must reclaim his memories from where they are concealed in the Oubliette before the mission can be accomplished.
Meanwhile, Isidore, a somewhat retro detective and architectural student, who relies on his own powers of deduction, is called in to help the Tzaddikim (the mirror-masked police of the Oubliette) to help solve the murder of a chocolatier.
It’s a colourful, complex and joyful piece of work, despite not being an easy read.
While not going entirely to the lengths of Burgess or Russell Hoban by writing in a contemporary dialect, Ramajieni nevertheless throws in a gallimaufray of invented terms and expressions that the reader needs to learn by a process of osmosis. Tzaddikim, zoku, phobois and exomemory are the more common examples. All becomes (fairly) clear eventually, but it does necessitate some concentration.
This is not of course a bad thing. Definitions arise from context, and Ramajieni is quite clever at doing this.
The structure is also quite ingenious as the narrative, which broadly follows Jean in first person, is interspersed with the lives and actions of other – sometimes quite baroque – figures, all of whose lives intersect in some way.
At first one could be forgiven for comparisons with John C Wright’s ‘The Golden Age’ as they both feature an amnesiac hero who appears to be on a mission possibly orchestrated by others.
This novel is one of a number of books (almost a subgenre in itself) attempting to address the question of whether the individual is merely the sum of his or her memories. There is also the very Dickian concept of an entire City/community having had its collective memory i.e. its history, changed, and the question is asked in the book as to whether the inhabitants should be told.
There is much in this book that stays with you. Odd philosophical niggles about the rights of copies of oneself that have accumulated new sets of memories and don’t have access to their older experiences. Which can claim to be the original, for instance?
It’s fascinating, colourful and, if not original, very compelling.