The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi is one of this year's most celebrated debuts - a complex science fiction mystery set on a far-future Mars. Part crime, part espionage, part action thriller and all jam-packed with imaginative technology, The Quantum Thief is a daring and intricately-constructed adventure.
The plot follows, mostly, the thief Jean le Flambeur. Jean is freed from his infinite, game-theory -riddled space prison by Mieli a winged-cyber-ninja. Mieli is on a mission and needs Jean's help. Unfortunately, Jean is only a mere shadow of his former self. Before he can help out Mieli and steal something, he needs to sort himself out. His foxy robo-angel reluctantly in tow, Jean heads to Mars to find fragments of his own memory.
Meanwhile, Mars is a proper SF wonderland, with more shiny baubles than a Christmas tree. Martians (such as they are, being human) live on time - bought, borrowed or earned. When they're out of time, they go Quiet, and are put to work terraforming or doing some other form of manual labour in a temporary monstrous form. The entire Martian society is based on a system of gevulot - shared memories. You don't tell people things as much as politely agree to mutually recall a something they hadn't experienced yet. There's no history, just "exo-memory" that exists outside of individual perspective and recall.
The whole culture is so bizarre that the Sobornost, the super-technical beings that have already taken over pretty much everything, aren't even bothering to conquer Mars. It basically isn't worth the effort of figuring out what they're on about. Not to say that Mars is only for Martians: there's also an exiled colony of "zoku", post-human gamer geeks and the mysterious phoboi, strange emotional critters that skirt the edge of the city, looking for prey.
Into this mess plummet Jean and Mieli. He refuses to do anything in a straightforward way when he could set six nesting plots up to do (almost) the same thing. And she really just doesn't give a flying damn about the entire thing, as long as she gets to punch something occasionally. Mieli is caught between a strange fascination for the hyperactive Jean and a desperate frustration that he takes so long to do anything. Her lover is caught somewhere, and until she finishes her mission, she can't save her.
All of this would be infinitely more interesting if the reader was allowed to care about any of the characters. Instead, the very language of the text prevents any sort of connection from taking place. Constantly I would be brought to the very brink of tension, only to learn that there are flashes in the spimescape or that, god forbid, the q-dots have failed or there's gogol-piracy going on. All of which, to give the author credit, are somehow internally consistent and meticulously planned.
Sadly, this only reminds me of the parallels between hard SF and say, crappy RPG-based shared world fiction. These are both types of books that encourage the dominance of the "how": be it quantum technology or D&D's Vancian magic system. They're self-prescribed thought-puzzles - how do you steal an entanglement ring when you're sharing gevulot? How do you seal a radiant sphere to beat back the vrock? Can you trap an Archon with your qdot matrix? Or do you have the right jade circlet for your 9th-level shape change? Either way, I can't stand it. These are books about creating systems, detailing systems, and, ultimately, authors patting themselves on the back in a "twist" climax, proud that they understood said system better than the reader did. Jean is constantly doing something that we're told is criminal genius, but, since I don't understand the how, why or what of it, I have only the author's extensive vocabulary as evidence.
Overall, I can genuinely understand the praise that Mr Rajaniemi has gathered for his impressive debut novel. It is flamboyantly intelligent, wildly intricate and clearly imaginative in ten thousand ways that I will never fully be able to appreciate. I also found it incredibly hard-going - there was neither a clear plot nor an empathetic character to which my reading could be anchored. Instead, every passage was an barrage of scientific vocabulary. Once deciphered, I could appreciate the author's intellect, but that got me no closer to actually enjoying the book.