The Quantum Thief by Hannu Raganiemi

The Quantum Thief by Hannu RajaniemiI think this was a really good book. I don’t know if I can be any more certain than that.

I had heard that it takes a working understanding of quantum physics and string theory to make sense out of what is going on. Which intrigued me and scared me in so many ways I can’t even start to explain. I have a Master’s Degree in Optical Science which is a branch of physics. I am a cautious friend of quantum physics and I met string theory at a lecture somewhere. That is to say, I’m not a physicist but I know more about this subject than perhaps the average bear.

It took me one third of the book just to understand what the goal of the characters were and two thirds to start to grasp how the world worked, what was going on and what to expect.

Then the whole thing changed and the climax turned the world upside down, destroyed everything I thought I knew, punched me in the gut, knocked me down and stole my wallet.

While I was reading the last few pages I was thinking, “Okay, I see what’s going on, I think I finally go it.” After I closed the book I tried to think how I would explain this book to another person and I drew a blank. The world in which the characters exist is so foreign and alien to me that I can’t describe it. I can’t even summarize the plot because I can’t comprehend it.

I understand what happened and it was very exciting, but I don’t comprehend it.

Which bring me to something that this book made me think about. Years ago (I don’t know how many) Vernor Vinge coined a phrase and an idea that he called the Technological Singularity. The idea of the Singularity is that at some point in our future our technology will become so advanced that we will no longer be able to comprehend (to grok) it.

This is similar to the oft misquoted Arthur C. Clarke phrase, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

An example of that would be if a person were brought from the early 20th century to our modern day he or she would be able to grasp much of our technology. Cars, planes, trains, electric lights, television, radio, etc, would be much more advanced than in his or her day but would be extrapolations of scientific concepts from his or hertime. However, explaining the internet to this person may be impossible. (I had a personal example of the technological singularity a couple of years ago when I took my ~85 year-old grandfather-in-law to an Apple Store. He marveled at how clear the reception was on the displays, completely missing my fervent explanations that there was no reception.)

If we were to go back farther still to the beginning of the 17th century then things like televisions and radios and phones would seem magical and strange to those people.Hannu Rajaniemi

Likewise if we postulate a continuation of this technological growth into the future, at some point technology will no longer be comprehensible to modern man. Sure the people five hundred years from now will understand how to use it, make it work and maybe even how it works, but we would not be able to.

In order for a person to write science fiction that takes place in the future that author must decide if he or she will choose to ignore the technological singularity, or embrace it. Embracing it presents a series of difficulties, as one must then imagine a technological world that is incomprehensible, and then write about it in a way that the authors understand what’s going on when people use technology that is so advanced that they can’t possibly understand it.

The Quantum Thief is definitely a post-singularity novel. The first few chapters are so riddled with new technology and terms that it begins to cause minor anxiety issues in the reader. I nearly gave up at this point as I didn’t want to read an entire novel that I couldn’t understand.

However, perseverance paid off. I say this despite my noncommittal claims at the beginning. The novel picks us up in the middle of a future that has had a long past and technology has changed it so many ways that many of people’s interactions are no longer even recognizable as forms of communication to our pre-singularity brains. After a while the reader starts to catch on and slowly a mystery begins to unfold, one that had a staggering amount of planning in the beginning and will have shocking repercussions.

Hannu Rajaniemi has a quick and beautiful writing style that feels both fluid and sharp. The words flow around the concepts and future tech and guide you into a world that you can not possibly understand. And then, somewhere along the way you realize that you kind of do understand it. It’s tied up in quantum resonance and string theory, much of it, so comprehension is limited but Rajaniemi makes you understand. By that I speak from my own experience. The seemingly possible has been accomplished. I felt like I understood this post-singularity world well enough to know what was going on, to be awed by the audacity of the climax and to find the heist (which depends so much on the technology) exciting. However, if asked I could not explain the technology to anybody.

Rajaniemi’s prose is exquisite, his story is quick and fascinating and his characters have secrets layered on secrets with a fresh patina of more secrets on top. The main character, Jean Le Flambeur seems to be an overconfident relic who was once a famous thief, but things are not what they seem.

That said, this book left me exhausted. I don’t enjoy post-singularity stories for the simple fact that I like to know what is going on. There is a certain amount of joy gained by learning to understand a world and it’s far-future tech but it seems negligible to the satisfaction of a good story in a universe that I can comprehend.

I find myself unable to recommend this book but also unwilling to discourage others from reading it. If it sounds intriguing then give it a try, many people love it unconditionally. I found that, though I enjoyed it, it wasn’t for me.

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