This is not really intended to be a book review, but more the impact the book is having on me as a writer. I’m reading a book by Hannu Rajaniemi called The Quantum Thief. It’s his first novel and I have to say that I’m extremely impressed. He runs a think-tank in Scotland and has a PhD in String Theory — big brain on this guy. The stuff in his novel is an absolutely fantastic extrapolation of social media and the internet into the far future and it’s stunning. I read an editorial piece yesterday by Bruce Sterling (Beyond the Beyond) in the newest issue of ARC talking about Futurists and the art of predicting and how it’s not realistic to expect anyone to get it right, but sometimes the story tellers hit on the right chord. I think Mr. Rajaniemi is not just striking the right chord, but making a symphony. BTW, he also has a short story in the same edition of ARC.
I’ll be honest; I had a really hard time getting through the first chapter. It is full of imagery and language that’s alien to a present-day human being, even one that is relatively tech savvy and speaks most of the jargon of current SciFi. It took me several read throughs to wrap my head around some of his constructs, but once I was acclimated the ride really took off. The story centers on several characters and they are all rich and well-developed and interesting. The landscape switches regularly from Mars to deep space and elsewhere, and the underlying science is well conceived, if poorly described, and I am barely hanging on by the tips of my fingers trying to keep up with it. It touches on the ramifications of immortality or the illusion of immortality and what is really real. The underpinning story is fantastical, but merely lays bedrock to present a smorgasbord of amazing concepts. Someone needs something stolen and they need the best thief that has ever lived to pull it off, it’s just that he is not quite himself …yet.
One of the reviews I read put it succinctly, “It is flamboyantly intelligent, wildly intricate and clearly imaginative in ten thousand ways that I will never fully be able to appreciate.” Bang on. At some point I gave up worrying if I was ever going to completely understand the various devices he uses and just went with the flow and enjoyed the scenery, even though at times I didn’t understand what I was looking at. The thing that really strikes me is how jealous I am. I am so pedestrian in my plotting and use of language by comparison that I’m almost ashamed of my story. Granted, they are in completely different vanes, but the ideas and richness of the tapestry he’s woven are so far beyond anything I’ve been able to imagine it’s just enthralling, the way watching a train wreck is enthralling. You can’t turn your head away. I’m not saying his story is a train wreck. I’m saying that me reading it feels like I’m on the train and I will never be as good as he is at this writing thing. It’s a thing that will be forever just out of my grasp, even though I can see it clearly for how lovely it is.
I have a decent vocabulary, but I don’t want to speak down to people, and I don’t want to even give the impression that I think I know more than you do. When I was a younger man I spoke differently than my peers and they made fun. I figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t necessary, and in fact was counter-productive, to show off the new words I learned. I’m wondering if that has influenced my thought patterns to the point that I am making myself dumber somehow.
I don’t feel like I am on the same plane of existence as some of these brilliant minds. It makes me sad, not sad like someone died, but more for the loss of something I never had. I really want deep down in my soul to be a brilliant science fiction writer, but I also know that my colander brain can barely hold a thought. It’s more like I get glimpses of the fragments as they fall through the cracks and I have to piece the puzzle together. I still end up with a few pieces missing and have to do my best with what’s left over. It’s extremely difficult to conceive of things that are new and breathtaking, but my mind does seem to be proficient at recognizing it when it sees it, when other people do it.
Getting back to the story, there are some flaws in his writing style. Flaws seems like too harsh a word, but for me, assuming I could come up with the ideas he has, the writing is a little too distant and even though his concepts are outlandish and almost incomprehensible, I would have tried a little harder to make them easier for the everyman to understand. Would that have diminished them somehow? I’m undecided, but I do know it was a struggle to get through this book in spots, and I’ve learned that things that slow down the reader, not the story, but the reader, are bad juju. I’ve read critiques that lambast some of the great conceptualists as weak when it comes to the mechanics of proper story engineering. The truly great ones manage to do both. The jury is still out for me if Mr. Rajaniemi is going to fall into that category, but it is a damn fine debut novel. Even being considered as a great debut puts him in fine company, company most aspiring authors would love to be in. It has inspired me to try even harder to get my stories right. I have a far, far future story in the works and it is obvious I have left a lot of stones unturned.