Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief (2010)

There's a lot of buzz surrounding this title, and rightly so: it is very good indeed. It's set in a far-future, post-disaster, high-tech, suavely elegant solar system -- more specifically, most of the novel takes place in 'the oubliette' a sort of Howl's-Moving-Castle city on Mars. The mix is something like 40% Dancers at the End of Time and 60% Charlie Stross -- though judging by his author photo, Rajaniemi would look a smidgeon less incongruous in an Ah-Ha tribute act than would Stross. But the book has Stross's inventiveness, and deep intelligence, and farseeing imagination, alongside Moorcock's stylish feel and flow.

At the heart it's a heist story: Jean le Flambeur, sprung from a deep space prison by the enigmatic warrior Mieli and her Banksish sentient spaceship Perhonen, in order to pull-off a complicated crime upon Mars. Meili is in the service of a mysterious, capricious goddess-like being, and the plot unwraps its several mysteries in a very satisfying manner. The Oubliette in particular is a splendid creation; not so much in terms of its far-future hardware as its social codes of privacy, guarded by information-exchange veils called 'guevelots', policed by 'tzaddicks' -- and its currency, time, to be lavishly spent or carefully hoarded as citizens count-down towards a 'death' that reprocesses their consciousnesses into 'Quiet' machines that do all the hard areoforming and city maintenance work. There's also a quick-witted Holmes-like youth, with a genius for solving crimes. I didn't entirely see what, in a world of unimaginable, quantum computational power, he had that made his data analysis so special or so superior to machinic AI deductive powers; but perhaps it makes more sense to see him more as a function of the genre (crime and detection) than the worldbuilding.

If the first quarter is an occasionally thorny read, it's because Rajaniemi launches straight in with a commendable density of unexplained description and without the condescension of infodumping. But every detail has its place in the larger whole; everything hangs together by the lights of not only scientific but social plausibility, and a critical mass of readerly understanding is reached by about page 100 when everything clicks into place. There is a lot of drinking ... almost a Finnish quantity of drinking in fact. There's a bit of sex. There's chocolate. The ending is very solid, too: although, since I'm contractually obliged to niggle, I was a touch underwhelmed by the swarming monsters who attack at the showdown, the 'phoboi'. They are (this is a mild spoiler, I suppose) the reason why the moving city has to move, but they struck me as under-realised. Plus: they were called 'phoboi' because that the Greek for 'fears', but the naming clashes a little with the fact that Phobos is, of course, a Martian moon. But the whole novel is enormously impressive.

This is one of the SF novels of 2010 that everybody is talking about; if you have any interest at all in contemporary hard sf you will read it. There will be awards.

One thing I particularly liked about it was how nicely it was written. I need to qualify that statement, mind you. The prose is as littered with neologisms as a chocolate chip cookie is with chocolate chips; and I suppose some readers will simply butt their heads against prose of this sort:
The spinescape view is seething with detail, a newtork of q-dots under the skin, proteomic computers in every cell, dense computronium in the bones. Something like that could only be made in the guberniya worlds close to the Sun. It seems my rescuers are working for the Sobornost.
If that sort of thing is wholly unpalatable to you, then you will struggle, I suppose. But for all its vocabulary clottedness, the rhythms of Rajaniemi are just lovely; he has a real feel for language, remarkable for a non-native speaker. Paragraphs are threaded along a pulse of iambic or anapestic pacing, tweaked and garnished with a enough metrical variety to stop it becoming monotonous. This sort of thing:
I roll the thought around my head. It seems too simple, somehow, too inelegant, too fragile. Would the old me have done that? Stored secrets in the exomemory of an Oubliette identity? It chills me to realise that I have no idea.
Which is to say:
I roll the thought around my head. It seems
Too simple, somehow, too inelegant,
Too fragile. Would the old me have done that?
Stored secrets in the exomemory of
An Oubliette identity? It chills me
To realise that I have no idea.
It's not Shakespeare; but it's certainly a cut above the run-of-the-mill tech-saturated prose of this sort of tale. Recommended.

On the other hand, I don't believe 'Rajaniemi' is actually a Raja. He's not even from India. (He's Finnish, I believe). I assume this is a courtesy title, like 'Duke' Ellington, 'Sir Mixalot' or 'Shahkira'.


Ben said...

Greetings from Finland!

I don't know if Hannu Rajaniemi is a Raja, but he is Finnish and Rajaniemi is a Finnish word that translates word for word to "bordercape" (cape as in the geographic thing not the thing that you can wear).

Maybe Hansel Bordercape would be a more commercially hip name than Hannu Rajaniemi, who knows (well The Shadow does, of course, but that's beside the point).

E.T. said...

About Rajaniemi's prose - ff while you're reading you skip a beat because the writer knows how to turn a phrase, or word play has you breathless, or anything that knocks you out of the story-- then the writer isn't doing his/her job. When it comes to fiction the job is to tell a story.

Nah, just kidding :)

I haven't read the book yet, but since it received a vocal endorsement by Hal Duncan and now you, I'm eager to try it out, despite my apprehension about "hard" SF.

Thanks for the review, Adam :)

Adam Roberts said...

Ben: 'Cape' as in the Cape Cod? What a strange thing to make a surname from.

Anthrophile said...

No stranger than "Brooks" or "Rivers." :-)

Mike Taylor said...


Speaking as both a reader and a writer, I'm fascinated by your reformatting of Rajaniemi's prose as verse. I strongly feel the difference between "good" and "bad" prose without having much by way of a conscious model for what actually constitutes either. Maybe this approach to rhythm is more important than I'd realised. (It certainly seems more promising than all the "show don't tell" stuff I'm always hearing).

A question: does a writer like Rajaniemi do this deliberately? Do you? Or does it emerge unconsciously?

amz said...

Perhaps one reason for Rajaniemi's feel for language is because he is part of a spoken-word performance "collective" in Edinburgh. Nothing gives a work of prose more rhythm than to have it being read out loud... preferably in front of a (heckling) audience. (OK, the heckling bit was made up.) Have a listen.

Adam Roberts said...

Mike: I can't speak for the Rajah, of course. As a writer I suppose I'd say that if I tried, deliberately, to force pentameters into my prose it would look odd. It's a more intuitive process.

Charlie Stross said...

The technobabble isn't; Hannu's PhD is in string theory, and the tech's as hard as anything by Greg Egan. I'm pretty sure that this trilogy is going to deliver the first really credible SFnal exploration of the singularity. Such a shame that it's "deep" genre, too deep to find the mass audience it truly deserves. (I think.)

Greger said...

I jsut read the book, and I agree - it's an evocative story set in a truly post-singularity environment (altough how could we even begin to know anything about the post-singularity world, if it wever comes?)

Being Swedish, I also love that someone (herr Gränsudde, to translate it into Swedish - we have such strange name conventions...) from our snowy wastelands can write something like this.

As to the surprise that someone not a native English speaker can write like this - think of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, neither belonging to that category, and they were probably better stylists than most of their contemporaries.