The quantum thief

The quantum thief / Hannu Rajaniemi

What did I just read?

The quantum thief is a quantum sf heist novel starring a futuristic version of Arsène Lupin. Rajaniemi has a number of fancy degrees in complicated fields, and this book (first in a series) almost requires a graduate degree to decipher.

Brief plot summary

Legendary thief Jean Le Flambeur is in prison. This prison takes the prisoner’s dilemma and puts it into literal practice: prisoners are confronted with each other and given the choice to attack or to cooperate. If a prisoner attacks and “kills” the other prisoner, they are rewarded. If the prisoners cooperate, they are both rewarded. A prisoner who is “killed” receives nothing.

Broken out of prison by a relatively human woman and her sentient ship (possibly also her lover) acting on behalf of the Sobornost, Le Flambeur travels to Mars where his task is to reconstruct his missing memories as the first step in a larger mission.

So how is it?

It’s a demanding read. Rajaniemi throws out words like “gogol” and “q-dot” with no explanation whatsoever. It’s believably far future science fiction – technology and society have morphed into something so different from our everyday life as to be nigh-incomprehensible.

To be honest, I had real problems understanding what was going on in these books until towards the end of the second book, where I realized that I had made an assumption about the characters that wasn’t necessarily true. Sorry to be cryptic but it was a great moment and totally improved my opinion of the series and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

In many ways, I see The quantum thief as the modern equivalent of Neuromancer – a book that defies many of the conventions of the genre, with an abstract, confusing plot, that heralds a new style of science fiction that will then become (mostly) obsolete when the society it describes actually comes about.

The quantum thief took me longer to read than most books, but I still enjoyed the experience. I found that the more I read the faster it got as I didn’t have to stop and try and puzzle out what was going on as frequently.

A point against this book: while most of the books in this series are made more demanding by their philosophical components, The quantum thief is really just a straightforward caper once you strip away all the sf trappings. There’s not a deep moral or philosophical lesson in this work. Instead, it’s just about the purest sf novel I’ve ever read, revelling in exploring new ideas and its own creativity.

It’s an experience that’s at least worth an attempt, as it stands proudly distinct from the vast majority of other works in the genre. It might be frustrating, but I’d encourage any sf fan to give it a shot.


This is another hard book to recommend. It’s great, but it requires pretty serious engagement with the text to make any sense. I’d recommend it for fans of Arsène Lupin – Le Flambeur has the same “style” and the plot structure isn’t too dissimilar from many of the Lupin stories (I’m thinking specifically of the first few stories in Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur).

Really, there are two types of readers that are going to appreciate Rajaniemi’s work
Those willing to expend a decent amount of intellectual energy reading what amounts to a science fiction Rififi

Those who don’t feel compelled to “understand” fiction and just go with the flow

I’d probably put myself in the second category. If you are interested in reading it, give it some time before you give up. Rajaniemi doesn’t do explicit explanations but the more you read the more what has happened previously will start to come together.

Specific recommendations:
A fire upon the deep / Vernor Vinge
Arsène Lupin, gentleman-cambrioleur (English ver.) (French ver.)
The book of the new sun / Gene Wolfe

And the generic recommendations from this series. The quantum thief gets placed just before Self-reference ENGINE because while confusing, The quantum thief has a fairly readily identifiable plot. Self-reference ENGINE, on the other hand, doesn’t even provide that to the reader.

The world of the end / Ofir Touché Gafla.
Annihilation / Jeff VanderMeer. First published 2014.
Man in the empty suit / Sean Ferrell.
A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world / Rachel Cantor
Self-reference ENGINE / Toh EnJoe


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