August 23 2011

The Quantum Thief

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi is a wild explosion of ideas. We meet a version of Jean le Flambeur (the eponymous thief) in a virtual prison structure. Copies of him are “running” in the prison and are destroyed/modified/rewarded based upon their success in a very real prisoners dilemma situation–kill or cooperate. The goal is reformation of the personality through a genetic algorithm process. Not a pleasant place to be in.
Jean is recruited/rescued from this prison by Mieli and her sentient space ship, Perhonen. At this point it is fairly clear we are somewhere in the fairly far future and that we’re in for quite a ride.
We then meet Isidore Beautrelet a detective on Mars. The Martian culture (post humans) is a truly unique extrapolation of privacy rules. Each Martian’s interaction with all other members of the culture is mediated through gevulot. Gevulot can be thought of as a privacy filter that is built in to the Martians. The extent of your knowledge (even your memory) of others is controlled though their control of gevulot. If your access is finished, the other person is literally not there to you–you may not even remember you met them. The other really interesting part of the Martian society is that the people alternate between an active phase and a Quiet phase. In the Quiet phase they become essentially worker cyborgs whose job is to maintain and protect the society. Their consciousnesses are suppressed during these times. The trigger for conversion is that every citizen carries a watch. When their watch runs out of time, it is time to become a quiet. Units of time are also the basic currency of the civilization. Very interesting society.
The eventual merging of the detective and thief stories was the only part of the book that seemed a little off balance to me. It took a while to figure out if the two events were related and how they were related in time and space. This was somewhat minor, but a little smoothing would have done well there.
As background details we gradually find out that large parts of the rest of the solar system are the domain of some sort of vastly amplified computational minds. There are groups of these engaged in struggle for resources (computational space, minds, …) It is at the edge of these struggles that the conflict and basic mysteries of the book emerge.
This is the first book of a trilogy and I’ve got to say that I am eagerly awaiting the second volume. Nicely done debut novel.

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Posted August 23, 2011 by user in category "Book review


  1. By EEGiorgi on

    I’ll have to look it up. You know, the quiet phase and the active phase reminds me of what viruses do, as they can indeed infect a cell and then stay dormant for years. Once they switch to active, they start the infection all over again. HIV uses this to escape drug therapy. I’ve always found the idea very intriguing and I wonder if that’s where Rajaniemi got the idea from.

    1. By Steven Halter (Post author) on

      That’s a cool observation. I think there may be some analogues to this behavior in the story. Although, in the Quiet phase they are acting more like an immune system for the city. So it would be a virus that alternates between an active mode (in that the consciousness is active) in which it consumes the hosts resources and a quiet mode in which it symbiotically helps the organism.


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