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July 15th, 2011

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03:04 am - The Quantum Thief
A few weeks ago, I read The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi, it was brilliant, but also exceedingly complex, and so I waited to write about it until I had the chance to think about it and then reread it. I finished rereading it a few days ago and found it even better on second read as first. It's an impressively high-context book, both in the sense that it assumes familiarity with the sub-genre of modern transhumanist-influenced SF, and more importantly because the author throw you into a complex and strange world filled with wonderfully arcane terminology. There's even an extensive Glossary on Wikipedia (which contains spoilers, but it useful after or during reading the book, to learn the etymology of terms like Sobornost (a Russian word meaning a spiritual community or collective), Gevulot (a Hebrew word for borders), or Tzadikkim ("a title given to personalities in Jewish tradition considered righteous, such as Biblical figures and later spiritual masters"). It's also well worth looking these terms up, since the meaning of these words is in all cases important to why they are used. The author is quite simply a genius with language.

It's also clearly the first book of a series, and while it is in no way unsatisfying, you also don't learn all of the answers by the end of the book, and right at the end, you get a few more questions to go along with them. The plot of this book is all about identity and memory and in a setting where both can be edited and duplicated, is exactly as complex as you'd expect. This is half the reason for wanting to reread the book, the other half is being able to appreciate it in considerably more depth once I understood the basic structure of the world and what it meant and implied.

The book was also made more personally interesting because I discussed it extensively with teaotter who read it shortly after I finished it for the first time. Given that she mostly reads fantasy and older-style SF of the sort written by authors like Jack McDevitt, I was impressed (once again) at Becca's ability to gain quite a lot of meaning out of a book, despite never having read any SF of this sort before. This is really not a book for people entirely unfamiliar with transhumanist space opera to get their start – Alastair Reynolds, Greg Egan, or Linda Nagata are all far better choices for that purpose. However, it's also the best book I've read in well more than a year, both because of the plots and ideas and also because of the sheer excellence of the prose.

It also brought home to me one of the reasons I prefer to read this sort of SF when it's written by Europeans. In addition to having many other levels, one of the major thematic levels of the book is about freedom and responsibility. The most powerful political entity in the solar system is based on enslaving uploaded minds – the many serve the few, and any who's not in charge has their mind, body, and free will entirely in the hands of beings who feel no compunction about using all these as they see fit. A variety of non-villainous societies also appear in the book, and while very different from one another, all share two common features, a lack of slavery, and the fact that instead what you have is a society where people effectively pay their taxes and work for the common good (in various exotic posthuman ways), while also clearly benefiting from these labors. Far too much US SF has the sort of libertarian bias that would result in a very different, and from my PoV, rather hideous book. It is also not a novel, where you have the protagonist spewing nonsense about how being a natural, unaugmented human is in some way morally superior (something that would have had me throwing Sean Williams' recent novel Saturn Returns across the room if it hadn't been a library book).

I also have a few observations that are perhaps best read by people who have already read the book It's clear to me that the thief was once in some way part of the Sobornost, and perhaps actually one of the Sobornost "gods", and it's equally clear that the series will be about him regaining all this to some end (or more accurately, several ends, both his own, and the pellegrini's, whose goals will, I am certain, increasingly diverge as the series goes on). This makes me not merely wonder if, but actually think that this book may have a plot very, very similar to that of Zelazny's Lord of Light, where the trickster/rebel god upsets the divine applecart and brings greater freedom to those who are oppressed by the gods. I'll be rather surprised if this isn't to at least some extent the case.

It also occurred to me that much of the terminology about the Sobornost is Russian, and the Sobornost are clearly an expansionist empire, which is perhaps not all that surprising a choice for an author who is Finnish and presumably, as a child grew up with the possibility of Russian invasion hanging over his head.

I was also deeply amused at how Becca first described the book to me – I asked where she was in the book, and she said she was at the first scene where "Batman" talked to "Sherlock Holmes" (ie the Gentleman talked to Isidore Beautrelet). Becca later went on to describe how the Tzadikkim clearly looked to her like an obvious references to the Justice League (with The Futurist being The Flash, The Silence being Superman, and The Gentleman (or perhaps The Bishop) being Batman). So now, a poll about this.

Poll #1761853 Question about the Tzadikkim from The Quantum Thief

Do you think the Tzadikkim are patterned after or modeled on the Justice League?

Uncertain but definitely possible
Other (explain)

Current Mood: impressedimpressed

(6 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:July 15th, 2011 10:55 am (UTC)
Three footnotes ...

1. It's a trilogy, not an open-ended series. (I'm waiting for the manuscript of "The Fractal King" to come my way some time this autumn :)

2. Sean Williams is Australian, not American, and I strongly suspect him of being an unreliable narrator in "Saturn Returns", although he is writing to appeal to a particular market segment. (Did you spot the character who only speaks in Gary Numan lyrics?)

3. Hannu is young enough that the cold war ended when he was 10. On the other hand, he's done military service in the Finnish army, so ...
[User Picture]
Date:July 15th, 2011 03:09 pm (UTC)
antipope, on the footnote 3: You probably have talked with Hannu about Russia, and this is just my observation.

I'm two years older than Hannu is, and I have lived all my life in Finland. I can remember the cold war somewhat, but it wasn't that big a thing for me. I remember fearing the nuclear war, though - I think this was sometime before 1985.

I think I never feared a Russian invasion, though. It was our largest trading partner at the time and while Finland was even then a Western country, our neutrality felt at least to me to be working at the time. I was a child, of course, and when I grew up, I did fear Russia for a while, when Zhirinovski was in the headlines often.

(Also, see the myth of the Winter War, and Continuation War, and realize we didn't get invaded the last time around. At least it gives the warm feeling of "we did beat them in the last war, we could do it again", while it might not be really so certain.)

The army thing: you can just take one look at the map and there are not that many borders for which Finland would need an army, really. This obviously is visible in the training. It's not like an invasion is really coming anytime soon, and there's much talk and some action for refining the Army for something else than be a stopper for the Russians, but it's still (in my view) one of the main points of having an army in Finland.

I didn't feel that the Russian terminology was out-of-place, and didn't place much thought in it. Mostly I had to read Dead Souls because of the reference.

heron61, thanks for writing this review, I'll re-read Quantum thief soon. (Just finished Rule 34 and now I'm reading the fourth book of the Song of Ice and Fire.)
[User Picture]
Date:July 15th, 2011 02:07 pm (UTC)

I quite enjoyed it as well, though there were some places where things were obviously done for the sake of the plot or the cool factor, and not because they made sense in the setting. In particular, there was the nanotech-ship hacking missile in the beginning (just employing a nuclear missile would have been simpler and more reliable, though obviously less cool and novel). It also bothered me a bit that although they clearly had mind uploading technology, people didn't seem to bother with regular backups - there were a couple of places where it seemed Isidore was in a real risk of getting permanently killed.

Those are minor quibbles, though - the kinds of concessions for drama that one has grown to expect in practically all sci-fi. It was still a very nice read, though I'd place it more in the category of "light reading" than "serious hard sci-fi".

I can't comment on the Justice League connection, since I'm not familiar with JL.

On a completely unrelated note, since you've on several occasions mentioned being rather skeptical about evolutionary psychology, I'd be curious to hear what you think of this paper. It's an evpsych piece, but also one that I found very impressive and definitely valuable reading.
[User Picture]
Date:July 16th, 2011 09:34 am (UTC)
On a completely unrelated note, since you've on several occasions mentioned being rather skeptical about evolutionary psychology, I'd be curious to hear what you think of this paper. It's an evpsych piece, but also one that I found very impressive and definitely valuable reading.

I've only had a chance to skim it, but it looks quite impressive. While it does contain some evo psych, a discipline whose entire existence I'm a bit dubious about, it also contains some excellent information on cutting edge neuroscience as well as discussions of the fascinating intersection of economics and psychology (which to me seems far more fertile ground for investigation than actual economics).

What I notice a lack of are both the "just-so-stories" tactic of creating a presumed (and thus almost certainly entirely fictional) evolutionary explanation for some modern trait and of rigid genetic determinism, which are IME, hallmarks of most evo psych that I've seen in both the mass media (newspaper and popular magazines) and in non-specialist publications for educated readers (such as the better done science magazines like Nature.)

The fact that this was published in a journal for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology rather than a publication specifically for geneticists or an organization specifically for evolutionary psychology also impresses me.

In short, a nifty-looking article that I'm looking forward to reading far more thoroughly. I've run into the concept of human consciousness being modular and divided before and it makes a great deal of sense and seems far more likely and sensible than the existence of any sort of singular and unified consciousness.
[User Picture]
Date:July 16th, 2011 10:04 am (UTC)
Glad you like it. I'm currently reading a popular book by one of the authors that covers the same topics, and I'm finding it excellent.
[User Picture]
Date:July 16th, 2011 04:31 am (UTC)
I just downloaded this, and now I'll have to move it further up my to-be-read list.

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