When I was an undergrad, I took an introductory astronomy course for non-science majors to fulfill that requirement. Given my lifelong love for all things astronomical due to a youth immersed in SF, I expected it to be a joy, a breeze, and an easy A. I, along with most of the class, ended up barely passing. The problem was that our instructor was simply too brilliant, so advanced in his field that he simply did not possess the ability to communicate basic concepts accessibly to a lay audience. It was as if he had a form of high-functioning autism.
In his enthusiastically acclaimed debut novel, Finnish physicist Hannu Rajaniemi isn't that inept a communicator. But The Quantum Thief still won't make any concessions to you. While in most works of imaginative fiction, a glossary of terms is an indulgence, here one is almost a necessity. (And where the book itself fails you, Wikipedia comes to the rescue.) There is no denying that Rajaniemi has an explosive imagination. In the book's best (read: clearest) moments, it's easy to see the inventive brilliance that has led many critics to hail The Quantum Thief as the debut of its year. But its prose favors hyperkinetic style over clarity.
From a mountaintop of hype, the only way to go is down. The Quantum Thief is essentially an old-fashioned pulp adventure, taking its cues in equal measure from retro detective stories and superhero comic books, redressed in the most lavish posthuman art direction. Rajaniemi wears his many influences on his sleeves, with the overflow spilling onto his lapels. Savvy readers will pick out bits of Bester, PKD, Sterling, M. John Harrison, maybe even a little Ballard from the narrative tumult, while Rajaniemi cribs nomenclature from Finnish, Hebrew, and Russian, from science, literature and even video games.
It's a wild, wild ride, but an altogether aloof one. Its ideas simply pour forth as if from a superconducting cornucopia. But the characters inspire no emotional investment, and the effort most readers will expend in comprehension overwhelms any experience of such storytelling basics as suspense. After a while, events began racing along at such a pace that I felt a distant, disengaged spectator. In the end, my three-star bottom line represents a balance between my admiration for Rajaniemi's formidable creative prowess, and my disappointment at being unable to connect with the end product as I'd have wished. Trust me, there is very little room for a middle ground with this book, and your own opinion will most likely fall well to one side or the other of that divide.
The book's future is a thoroughly posthuman one, to the extent that some of its uploaded minds are practically gods. Jean le Flambeur — inspired by such notable French fictional antiheroes as Arsène Lupin and Bob le Flambeur — is a thief doing time in a Dilemma Prison, forced into perpetual reenactment of the famed game-theory paradox against endless copies of himself. He is sprung by Mieli, a temperamental agent for the Sobornost, an upload collective. An Oort native, she has wings on her back and a fusion reactor in her thigh, which definitely makes her high-maintenance in my book. Still, in one scene where Jean takes her to a nightclub where she can sing, she provides one of the story's rare moments of human warmth.
Aboard Mieli's sentient ship, Perhonen ("butterfly"), Jean learns his freedom comes with a price. He must help Mieli steal something for her employer, the Sobornost entity Pellegrini, from a mobile Martian city called the Oubliette. Exactly what this thing is remains shrouded in obscurity — perhaps to be revealed in a sequel — though we understand it is to benefit some Sobornost obsession they call the Great Common Task. But first, Jean must recover several memories of his own forgotten past life stored in the Oubliette.
His quest will bring him up against Isidore Beautrelet, another character named for someone from an Arsène Lupin story. Isidore is, for some reason, both an architecture student and a famous detective. An early scene, with Isidore investigating the murder of a chocolatier, is completely involving and serves to establish the genuinely fascinating culture of the Oubliette. This is a Martian city that wanders the bleak landscape on a "forest of legs," where time itself is currency, and where citizens must earn the right to live in a proper body by serving as a Quiet, where their "gogols" (stored personalities, an awesomely inspired reference to Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls) are installed in creepy homunculi designed to perform the menial tasks that keep the city running. But gogol piracy, the ultimate identity theft, is enough of a problem that a vigilante group, the Tzaddikim (who are kind of like the Watchmen), have formed to protect citizens. A public "exomemory" serving the entire city and documenting all aspects of its history is available to all, while individual citizens can control their own privacy by means of a "gevulot," sort of a personal firewall.
While on his quest, Jean discovers that the city is on the brink of civil war, stemming from the efforts of the Tzaddikim to oppose the cryptarchs. No one is sure who they are, but the Tzaddikim seem positive they're doing something to harm the Oubliette and control the minds of its citizens. And it might even involve corrupting the city's exomemory.
Getting all this? It's all very intricate, and to be perfectly fair, a jaw-droppingly impressive future in its construction. It's in the execution where the rubber meets the road. Reading this novel was, to me, more a chore than a pleasure. As the plot barrels along, getting denser by the chapter, with secret identities all over the place, with characters seemingly able to magic whatever technology they need out of thin air whenever the story requires them to have it, it all began to feel as if someone had commissioned William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and Sam Delany to script the new X-Men movie. Which, of course, would be both an amazing thing, and the worst thing ever.