Quantum Thief series wrap-up

Have you checked out this new series from Finn-born Edinburgher, Hannu Rajaniemi? Though it was published back in 2010 in the UK, The Quantum Thief only came stateside about one year ago, giving newly converted fans a mercifully short wait for the sequel, which was just released. I think I read the two within three months of each other, and now I’m sitting here frustrated as I think of the year or more I’ll have to wait before I can conclude what’s shaping up to be an excellent trilogy.

If you haven’t read it, yet, I’m not sure exactly how I should explain it. Some mention the diamond-grade hardness of Rajaniemi’s brand of science fiction. The man has more advanced degrees than you can shake an average-length stick at, and one reviewer quipped, “You don’t need a degree in mathematical physics to read this book, but it helps.”

It’s true the author leaves exposition out of it, but that’s simply good storytelling, whether it’s an explanation of the physics of quantum entanglement, or an explication of character motivations.

Leaving aside the (spot-on) scientific underpinnings, what about the series’ literary forebears? In my previous review, I identified series hero Jean le Flambeur as the spiritual successor to Arsène Lupin. This is made explicit in Rajaniemi’s follow-up, The Fractal Prince, where the dedication page specifically thanks Lupin’s long-departed creator, Maurice Leblanc.

So the hard sci-fi, space-opera, post-cyber punk setting is simply that: a setting. The narrative structure is more of the caper variety, with daring heists and lovably irredeemable rogues. So now we’ve got a hold of something different. If we were simply looking at Marlowe or Holmes in a genre pastiche, I’d say add it to the pile (though it may well be an excellent pile), but Arsène Lupin as a quantum criminal? That’s a new one on me.

I’m reminded just a little of another critically-acclaimed novel from a new writer, lo so many years ago. Altered Carbon is similar only insofar as author Richard Morgan also ended up with a trilogy, also dealt with minds as transferrable software, and also did some genre-bending, though of the hard-boiled variety.

But Morgan lost me with that series when the sequels took on a completely different tone, switching from detective sci-fi to military sci-fi. Rajaniemi, meanwhile, got me even more hooked with his follow-up by pulling, at least at first glance, the self-same sort of 180. Drawing deeply on the One Thousand and One Nights, this second novel presented as an Arabian tale of adventure, or a far-future analogue, all the more satisfying due to its well-realized SF substrate.

Rajaniemi gets world-building, it’s clear. But he gets storytelling better. He may dip his toe into one genre after another, but the common denominator is a certain stylistic panache that just keeps you turning the page. This may just be the most interesting ongoing series in science fiction right now. First Lupin, then Scheherezade — just what imposing literary spirit will this practiced dabbler channel next?

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