A Whirlwind Adventure in the Deep End of the Pool – A Review of The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

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In video games, there is a concept called the “learning curve”: meaning, how much time it takes a player playing the game for the first time to pick up the necessary skills to able to play the game in question. The more time it takes for a player to learn the skills necessary to play the game, the steeper the learning curve. Different gamers, of course, have different assessments of how steep or shallow the learning curve of a specific game is: for some, a game’s learning curve might be steeper than they expected, and for others, it might be shallower. Also, some players appear to prefer games with a steep learning curve, viewing the learning process as an enjoyable challenge all on its own, while other players cannot be bothered with such things and prefer to get on with actually playing the game as quickly as possible.

However, while the learning curve concept makes a lot of sense when applied to games and video games, it doesn’t work quite as well for books—at least, not once one is past a certain educational level and barring certain issues like dyslexia. In that sense, then, the “difficulty” of a book has more to do with the concepts it tackles, and the way the writer manipulates language for their own purposes. Consider, for example, reading something like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, versus reading something like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Before anyone argues that the comparison doesn’t work, I would like to add that the concept of “difficulty” is relative: someone might find reading all of Remembrance of Things Past a cakewalk compared to Lord of the Rings, and vice-versa. What counts here is that, for some people, reading one or the other is “difficult”.)

In such cases, I find that a good metaphor is that of a swimming pool, and the idea of learning how to swim. Most pools have a shallow end, and a deep end, with the shallow part slowly sloping towards the deeper end. When learning to swim, one may start at either end: most people prefer to start at the shallow end and work their way toward the deep end as they gain more confidence in their skills, but some might just decide to jump into the deep end. Such people are probably already experienced swimmers and are looking for a challenge, while a few might just be the sorts of people who think they learn best when caught in a crisis.

This works very well when describing how difficult a book is to read, especially when one is engaging in a particular genre. For instance, if one is introducing another reader to the fantasy genre, it might not be wise to “throw them into the deep end of the pool”, so to speak, by making them read something like Wheel of Time or the Malazan books. However, if one is already into the genre, and is looking for something more challenging, then one might, as a natural course, go for the more “difficult” books in the genre. Or, if one just wants to jump headlong into it, then one might decide the that the deep end of the pool is the obvious way to go.

This whole idea is especially true with science fiction. There is plenty of sci-fi out there that is easy to get into, but there’s also a lot that can be hard to wrap one’s mind around. As someone who has been exploring the genre for a while, I like to drift between the two extremes, depending on my frame of mind—and in doing so, I come across books that look simple on the surface, but turn out to be remarkably complex, and others that look complex on the surface, but at their core are, in fact, rather simple (though it must be said that, again, one isn’t necessarily better than the other).

A really good example of the latter is The Quantum Thief, the first book in Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean le Flambeur trilogy. Set in a post-human universe of super-powerful quantum computers and alien wars, The Quantum Thief opens with Jean le Flambeur, the greatest thief in the universe, stuck in a place called the Dilemma Prison, where he is forced to play the complex—and deadly—games of the prison’s strange warden. However, he is broken out of prison by a woman named Mieli and her ship Perhonen, and is forced to work with them on a very specific mission, one that will take him to the planet Mars, where Jean will run up against a brilliant young detective, a mysterious masked policeman—and his very own self, and the past he left behind on Mars.

The first thing one needs to know about this novel is this: though Rajaniemi is a really good writer, capable of spinning out some wonderful gems of sentences, the terminology he uses for his world is more than a little confusing, and can be extremely irritating to the reader. I’m not particularly certain of what kind of logic Rajaniemi was using when he came up with the various terminologies he uses for this novel, but I think it mostly has to do with coming up with a concept, finding a word, or even a name, in another language, and using that to stand in for the concept at hand. For instance, unless one is familiar with the playwright Nikolai Gogol, and his work Dead Souls, one might not pick up on what the term “gogol” means until one has progressed past a certain point in the book.

It is this issue that makes me want to put The Quantum Thief at the deep end of the pool when it comes to sci-fi, and is one of my nitpicks about it. I’m not opposed to sci-fi (or fantasy, for that matter) with complex terminology in it, but Rajaniemi’s use of them feels scattered and disorganised, and therefore, almost incomprehensible. While Rajaniemi does try to show what the words mean (as opposed to explaining them outright), this does tend to get lost in the greater scheme of things as he tries to push the story forward. I suppose this is a deliberate attempt to avoid getting bogged down in minutiae, which is admirable in any writer, but I rather wonder if Rajaniemi does not sacrifice something much greater in his attempt to avoid slowing his writing down. I rather believe that most readers of space opera expect, if not enjoy, a little bit of info-dumping as long as it doesn’t sacrifice the novel’s overall pace, and I think some info-dump would have gone a long way towards making this novel more comprehensible, and, consequently, more enjoyable.

I also have some issues with the way Jean le Flambeur is characterised. I did some poking around while I was in the middle of reading the book, mostly because I experienced a mild dislike of him from the get-go. I like rogues, I have an immense fondness for rogues, so it stood to reason that I should like Jean, but I didn’t. Puzzled by my reaction, I decided to go looking for an explanation, and found one: Jean is, essentially, built along the same lines as Arsène Lupin, Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman thief and most famous creation. This is, at least for me personally, a good explanation because I never did like Lupin very much, as a character, finding him too flippant and shallow. I realised, though, that this comparison was hardly fair to Rajaniemi as a writer and Jean as a character, so I gave both the chance to prove me wrong—and they did, after a while. Jean grows more and more tolerable as the novel progresses, though there were still some moments when I wanted to smack him for a variety of reasons.

However, despite the above failings, the rest of the novel is really rather fun. Though I found it hard to love Jean, I did find the other characters especially easy to love, not least Mieli and Perhonen. Mieli’s story is rather sad, and there are hints of a deeper and more interesting story than is revealed in this first novel, but I certainly look forward to finding out more about her in the upcoming books. I also hope that she and Jean don’t develop a romantic relationship. because that would just clash with Mieli’s own story (such as it is) and would just grate on my nerves because that would be the expected thing to do, and I hope Rajaniemi proves himself a better writer than that.

Equally fun is the plot Rajaniemi weaves for this novel. It’s nothing overly complicated: basically a heist narrative interwoven with a classic whodunit, but it’s still fun nevertheless, mostly because of the setting and the world Rajaniemi has built for his series. The plot doesn’t have the same screaming twists and turns that, say, Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards novels do, and in fact it should be relatively easy to figure out what’s going to happen next, if only the plot wasn’t being constantly obscured by Rajaniemi’s arcane terminology. Still, it’s a pleasant little tale, for all its simplicity, and the characters—yes, even Jean, towards the end—do a lot to make it enjoyable.

Overall, The Quantum Thief is simultaneously easy to love, and easy to be annoyed with. On one hand, Rajaniemi’s terminology might strike some readers as nonsensical and needlessly obscure, not least when he doesn’t offer too many explanations and simply chucks the reader into the deep end of the metaphorical pool, leaving them there to sink or swim. While as a rule I admire writers who can do that, there is a limit to whether or not a writer can get away with it, and in this case, I don’t think Rajaniemi managed to do so. I’m also not particularly fond of Jean le Flambeur, mostly because he’s modelled on another character I never particularly liked in the first place. This is, naturally, personal bias, and he does become tolerable to read about further in the novel.

As for everything else, it’s quite enjoyable: the other characters are a delight, especially Mieli and Perhonen, and fortunately they share more or less equal time with Jean in centre stage, so to speak. The plot isn’t quite as layered or complex as I might like (certainly it doesn’t approach the sort of complexity I’ve come to appreciate in heist stories thanks to Lynch’s novels), but it’s a charming little tale that suits the setting and the characters in it quite well, and is fun to read. Hopefully that charm matures into something greater in the next novels, because it would be a great big waste of such lovely characters and an interesting setting if it turned out otherwise.

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