Claire North thumbs through The Quantum Thief.
Claire North on a place where quantum mechanics and magic collide
In a diamond prison floating through space, a man tries to convince a monster not to kill him again, while in the cell next door his clone luxuriates on a recliner and scoffs at the notion of redemption. Welcome to the Dilemma Prison, but don’t get comfortable – barely have we arrived than our main character has died and been remade, eaten a self-replicating computerised jailor, and been abducted by a woman who may be possessed by a goddess. And that’s just the warm-up.
Before you can blurt “Whoa there, the Sobornost warminds did what with a singularity on Jupiter?”, The Quantum Thief is off, plunging into a universe of gogol pirates, ascended beings, nano-tech phoboi, celestial wars, sentient spaceships, weaponised quantum mechanics and expensive chocolate with a stomach-churning twist. Cities walk across the surface of Mars, and death is nothing more than a change in economic status; millions of copies of a single thought may become weapons or tools, or an amusing plaything in a corner of Zoku Realmspace.
If you were to say one thing about The Quantum Thief, “understated” would not be it.
And arguably that’s a problem. The Quantum Thief has a lot to get to grips with, and throws events at the reader as readily as it drops references to past wars and culture-altering technologies. It can become frustrating, and you either have to engage meticulously, or shrug and allow the charm of the main characters and the momentum of the story to sweep you on. “Sure,” proclaim our heroes, “we’re now battling a floating vigilante for access to a planet’s collective memory and the key that will unlock the human soul, all in a day’s work…”
Complex world-building is woven in with moments of trivia and beauty. Mieli, a woman so teched up that she has a nuclear reactor in her thigh, sang her somewhat snarky spaceship into existence out of an ice cloud. Jean de Flambeur, our rakish semi-hero, hid his own memories from himself, and can’t even work out why he did it, or if he’s ready to pay the price to get them back. As they plunge deeper into a Martian conspiracy, questions of identity, privacy, society and the different paths humanity might choose to evolve down are mingled with the personal; failed relationships and broken dreams, matters of music, art, family and religion.
It’s a novel that both delights in the possibilities of a post-humanity civilisation in flux, while at the same time retaining a quaint nostalgia. The Zoku may be technological gods, but their parties are pure celebrations of 1980s kitsch; Puss in Boots stalks the dreams of sleeping Martian women, while fashion among the Time-rich nobility harkens back to a time of Enlightenment-era decadence, complete with added robotic war machines.
In many ways The Quantum Thief is a celebration of Arthur C Clarke’s maxim about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. If you care about multidimensional mathematics you’ll probably have a whale of a time reading it; if not, then yes, basically, it was done with magic. But the book breezes along so easily that any cultural questions you may want to take from it are really down to the reader.
Charming and fascinating, intelligent and confounding, whether you are delighted by this rollercoaster or irritated that it doesn’t slow down for the corners, either is a valid response, and something about the uncertainty of that in itself seems very apt for The Quantum Thief.