Reading The Quantum Thief is like being immersed in a foreign language. Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel is packed with new words representing technologies and political factions in the distant future. He offers no glossary and little explanation, forcing readers to parse out meaning as they go. It’s an impressive exercise in world-building, but the story is nearly crushed beneath the weight of Rajaniemi’s ambitions.
The story largely focuses on Jean le Flambeur, a legendary thief who is busted out of prison for a job, but first must rediscover his capabilities and history by recovering memories he hid before his incarceration. Rajaniemi uses plenty of genre tropes, like technology that eliminates resource scarcity and humans that have become effectively immortal or have augmented their bodies so much that they’ve become superhuman. He then adds his own clever twists, such as the Martian economy where time is currency, and people who run out earn it back by having their minds placed in the bodies of robot slaves. One group of super-advanced humans honors their ancestors by holding parties where they dress up in fantasy or superhero costumes and play videogames and Werewolf. Rajaniemi is a Finnish author with a Ph.D. in string theory, and much of his technology is based off quantum physics. Explanations of how things work would be especially helpful for layman readers, and a great potential for the author to share his thoughts on practical applications for the largely theoretic field. Instead, he repeatedly mentions terms like quantum dots, and leaves it at that.
Still, it’s easy to get caught up in The Quantum Thief’s part-space-opera, part-detective-yarn plot. Rajaniemi’s prose is excellent, and his characters all feel real and nuanced. The plot is also rewarding, layered with predictable twists that only give the genuinely surprising ones a stronger impact. Unfortunately, the unexplained jargon isn’t just something readers must wade through in the early chapters. Fight scenes too often feel like gamers are describing their favorite battles without caring whether their conversational partners have ever played the game: Those sequences are rife with terminology and rules that assuredly make perfect sense to Rajaniemi, but leave readers with an amorphous idea of what “combat fog” is supposed to be. Rajaniemi introduces new terminology even during the book’s action-packed climax.
The Quantum Thief’s last chapter is devoted to setting up a sequel, which is already in the works. There’s a lot left to explore in the setting, and if Rajaniemi can avoid piling on too much new vocabulary, he has the potential to pen an excellent new science-fiction series.