The Quantum Thief is the debut science fiction novel by Hannu Rajaniemi and the first novel in a trilogy featuring Jean le Flambeur; the sequels are The Fractal Prince (2012) and The Causal Angel (2014). It was published in Britain by Gollancz in 2010, and by Tor in 2011 in the US. It is a heist story, set in a futuristic solar system, that features a protagonist modeled on Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief of Maurice Leblanc.
The novel was nominated for the 2011 Locus Award for Best First Novel, and was second runner-up for the 2011 Campbell Memorial Award.
The novel is set in a post-human future solar system. Jean le Flambeur is a legendary thief who has been imprisoned in a Dilemma Prison, a virtual jail of the Sobornost created by the Archons, themselves the creation of the Engineer-of-Souls. During an unsuccessful encounter with the All-Defector, he is sprung from his prison in the Neptunian Trojan belt by Mieli, a warrior from the Oort cloud, and taken to her ship, Perhonen. There, he finds out that his freedom comes at a price: he must return to his old criminal ways to steal something for Mieli's employer, the pellegrini. First, however, he has to retrieve his previous memories, which he had meticulously hidden in the Oubliette, one of the Moving Cities of Mars.
In the Oubliette, Isidore Beautrelet is unraveling a Gogol piracy case, brought to his attention by his tzaddik mentor, The Gentleman. Isidore is an architecture student and only ten Martian years old, but he has accumulated a reputation as a sharp detective. This case, however, exposes him to unwanted fame, which is extremely gauche in polite Oubliette society, where even people who share a flat remain discreetly behind a cloud of gevulot to avoid the faux pas of violating each other's privacy. Notoriety, however, brought him to the attention of a new client, the millenniaire Christian Unruh. Unruh is about to host a party to commemorate his early entry into Quiet, but a note has appeared under impossible circumstances in his mansion, which Unruh asks Isidore to investigate. The note announces an unlikely gate-crasher to the party: Jean le Flambeur.
Themes central to The Quantum Thief are the unreliability and malleability of memory and the effects of extreme longevity on an individual's perspective and personality. Prisons, surveillance and control in society are also major themes.
In the book, the people living in the Oubliette society on Mars have two types of memory; in addition to a traditional, personal memory, there is the exomemory, which can be accessed by other people, from anywhere in the city. Memories about personal experiences can be stored in the exomemory and partitioned, with different levels of access granted to different people. These memories can be used, among other things, as an expedient form of communication.
The Oubliette society has an economy where time is used as currency. When an individual's time is expended, their consciousness is uploaded into a "Quiet". The Quiet are mute machine servants who maintain and protect the city. Although the quiet seem to have little interest in the world outside their occupations, they do seem to retain some traces of their former personalities and memories.
The conspiracy central to the plot involves the hidden rulers, called the "cryptarchs", manipulating and abusing the exomemory and through the citizens' transformations to quiet and back, the traditional memory as well. In the book, the Oubliette society is compared to a panopticon; a prison, where every action of the dwellers can be scrutinized.
The first chapter of The Quantum Thief was presented by Rajaniemi's literary agent, John Jarrold, to Gollancz as the basis for the three-book deal that was eventually secured. Rajaniemi has stated that he had "come up with an outline that had every single idea I could cram into it, because I wanted to be worthy of what had happened." The outline eventually expanded into three parts, and the first part became The Quantum Thief.
The novel's plot was inspired by one of Rajaniemi's favorite characters in fiction, Maurice Leblanc's gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, who operates on both sides of the law. What intrigued Rajaniemi were the cycles of redemption and relapse Lupin goes through as he tries to go straight, always falling short. Besides LeBlanc, Rajaniemi mentioned Roger Zelazny as a strong influence. Ian McDonald was the other SF author he mentioned as influential, plus Frances A.Yates's book The Art of Memory, for memory palaces.
In an interview, Rajaniemi said he wasn't trying to write the novel as hard SF: "For me, the more important consequence of having a scientific background is a degree of speculative rigour: trying hard to work out the consequences of the assumptions one begins with."
The novel has received generally positive reviews. Gary K. Wolfe writes in his Locus review that Rajaniemi has "spectacularly delivered on the promise that this is likely the most important debut SF novel we'll see this year". James Lovegrove, reviewing the book in his Financial Times column, notes that "many an anglophone author would kill to turn out prose half as good as this, especially on their maiden effort." Eric Brown, reviewing for The Guardian, finds the novel to be "a brilliant debut", while alluding to the "apocryphal" (and incorrect) myth that "this novel sold on the strength of its first line." Sam Bandah, at SciFiNow, praises the novel for "its engaging narrative and characters backed by often almost intimidatingly good sci-fi concepts."
Criticism for the novel has generally centred on Rajaniemi's sparse "show, don't tell" writing style. Brown notes that "the author makes no concessions to the lazy reader with info-dumps or convenient explanations." Niall Alexander, of the Speculative Scotsman, states that "had there been some sort of index, [he] would have gladly (and repeatedly) referred to it during the mind-boggling first third of The Quantum Thief", while proclaiming the novel to be "the sci-fi debut of 2010."Nominee for the 2011 Locus Award for Best First Novel.
Third place for the 2011 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel