The New Space Opera: A Review of The Quantum Thief

I have to admit that I’m not the most well-read when it comes to modern day sci-fi, but Hannu Rajaniemi’s novel The Quantum Thief was a pretty big departure from the kind of space opera narrative I was used to. Judging by the book’s popularity, I’m guessing that many others hadn’t read something quite like it before either. But authors like Rajaniemi and Ann Leckie, who wrote Ancillary Justice, are in a new wave of sci-fi writers who are starting to consider the effects of The Singularity on humanity and their novels are starting to shape the new face of the space opera genre.

The Quantum Thief follows Jean le Flambeur, a master thief who is freed from a virtual prison by his partners and handlers Mieli and Perhonen (her ship) to steal something for Mieli’s employer. However, in order to do this le Flambeur must recover his memories which have been dispersed over the moving city on Mars. Enter Isidore Beautrelet, a young and upcoming detective who is hired by the mysterious millenniare (in Martian society the currency is time) Christian Unruh to stop a heist that he believes will be perpetrated against him by le Flambeur.

The story is set in a post-human world where people live forever and minds are more like hard drives, which is how le Flambeur’s memories were so scattered, and why he has to find them. People are also networked on the planets they live on and can communicate by swapping data memories, allowing them to fully experience what someone else went through or recalls. They can also choose not to interact with people by putting up a privacy shield that obscures them.

I think we’ll be seeing more space opera stories featuring these kind of technologies where the author incorporates The Singularity into his or her world building. As amazing as Strek Trek was when it was being made, it doesn’t seem that the future will look very much like the adventures of the Enterprise and her crew. Writers wanting to create a more authentic looking future (and sci-fi readers are often the type of audience who consider these sort of things) will have to consider The Singularity and other upcoming technological advances that are supposed to be occurring in the next 30 to 50 years when they sit down to create a human society in the far flung 2100s or even later. If an author decides not to create a post-Singularity society that far in the future, there should at least be some consideration as to why (like some sort of tech-apocalypse or something). The problem becomes how do you tell a story where the characters are something other than human while still making them relatable?

Rajaniemi ends up doing this very well. Despites it post-human setting, The Quantum Thief is at its core a simple heist story. And while the characters live in a world where death (as we know it) is obsolete and there are a slew of technological advancements that color their lives, they still deal with human emotions, like love, regret, lust, jealousy, and anger. While a character might inhabit more than one body, or different types of bodies, he or she still has a sense of identity that the reader can easily connect with. In fact, I think what this first book in Rajaniemi’s trilogy shows very well is that the post-human narrative can still feel quite human.

You can get The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur) in paperback or on The Kindle.

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