Review: The Quantum Thief

I’ve struggled to find a way into The Quantum Thief, to write about it. Admittedly that’s partly because I read it several months ago (yes, I am a bad reviewer with an extensive backlog); but I also think it went slightly over my head.

It’s set in a universe which has hit the singularity and passed cheerfully out the other side. Human minds can be cloned and copied like software programmes; menial computing tasks are carried out by what are apparently conscious, artificial minds called gogols. Extreme bodily injury is mostly a matter of discomfort; flesh can be grown back as easily as a very easy thing. And death is not necessarily permanent. All of this is taken as given, as things that the reader will know as a matter of course, which does not exactly make for light reading.

Beneath all this concept, the plot’s actually relatively straightforward: a heist plus a detective story. The titular thief, Jean le Flambeur, is rescued from a brutal quantum prison by the mysterious woman Mieli, who’s in the service of a goddess, the pellegrini. (I think we’re supposed to read the goddess as an extremely advanced computer consciousness, but who knows.) Mieli and the pellegrini, for their own reasons, want Jean to retrieve some of his own memories, which he’s left locked away somewhere on Mars. Specifically, in a city called the Oubliette, which is governed by social codes of privacy whereby people can regulate how much of their interactions others can remember.

Meanwhile, a young up-and-coming detective tries to solve a mysterious murder involving chocolate and the Quiet Ones, the re-embodied minds who run the city.

There’s a lot of world-building in this book; matched by prose that’s overflowing with neologisms, names for tech we don’t have and factions whose powers we never quite work out:

The spimescape view is seething with detail, a network of q-dots under the skin, proteomic computers in every cell, dense computronium in the bones. Something like that could only be made in the guberniya worlds close to the Sun. It seems my rescuers are working for the Sobornost.

That passage makes probably as much sense to you as it does to someone reading the book.

This makes for a difficult read, and to some extent I relished that difficulty: it’s a refreshing change to read something that engages so thoroughly with how fundamentally different the far future will look; how what we consider as “human” may change so thoroughly.

That’s not to say that The Quantum Thief manages entirely to escape the pitfalls into which more relatable science fiction tends to fall. In particular, it occasionally feels uncomfortably male gaze-y – Jean’s attracted to Mieli, and his narration can tend to privilege her sexual attractiveness rather than her character. And there’s a thing called “combat autism”, seemingly a mental enhancement of some sort which allows Mieli to experience and analyse dangerous situations dispassionately, which feels vaguely appropriative and stereotypical of people who have actual autism – crucially, Mieli can switch “combat autism” on and off at will.

And that prose really does make the shape of the novel hard to pick out. I enjoyed it, but I feel like I took less away from it than I should have.

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