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Literature: The Quantum Thief

No one else will remember or know what we are going to say here. Even I will forget, unless you let me remember. This is the way things work here. No one has to be a stranger.

The Quantum Thief is Hannu Rajaniemi's debut sci-fi novel, and the first of a trilogy.

In a post-Singularity solar system slowly being eaten by a community of uploaded minds, Mars has remained independent and unique thanks to its extreme attitude to privacy: all memory is externally stored and encrypted, and you can't access a memory unless everyone involved consents. This makes life pretty difficult for detective Isidore Beautrelet, but as a native Martian he wouldn't have it any other way.

Also due to make life difficult for Isidore is the Gentleman Thief Jean le Flambeur, a figure of legend who's modeled himself on Arsène Lupin. A debt of honor requires Jean to commit a daring heist, but first he must steal back his own memories from the Oubliette of Mars. He's accompanied by Mieli, the bitter transhuman masterminding the mission, her flirtatious spaceship, and the goddess she reluctantly serves.

The second part of the trilogy, The Fractal Prince, came out in late 2012. A physicist receives a mysterious paper. The ideas in it are far, far ahead of current thinking and quite, quite terrifying. In a city of fast ones, shadow players, and jinni, two sisters contemplate a revolution. And on the edges of reality a thief, helped by a sardonic ship, is trying to break into a Schrödinger box for his patron. In the box is his freedom. Or not. Jean de Flambeur is back. And he’s running out of time.

The third and final installment, The Causal Angel, came out in July 2014. After the events of The Fractal Prince, Jean le Flambeur and Mieli are separated. The two protagonists, each in their own way, struggle to decide where their loyalties lie and how to proceed in the catastrophically altered situation. Meanwhile, the Solar System is plummeting into an all-out war. The most powerful factions, the Sobornost and the Zoku, are gathering their forces and making their plays, while simultaneously being torn apart by internal strifes.


The Jean le Flambeur Trilogy provides examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The Sobornost gave up on trying to create intelligence without sapience or make minds not based on the human cognitive architecture after they ended up creating the mindless, destructive insanity that was the Dragons, which are now used only as terror weapons. Disturbingly, this means that every single system that the Sobornost uses is powered by a spliced, copy-pasted and mutilated version of an uploaded human mind.
  • The Alternet: The Spimescape is the closest equivalent of a Solar System-wide information network, though it's heavily divided and fragmented.
  • Assimilation Backfire: The All-Defector beats people by simulating them well enough to predict their actions. At the end of The Causal Angel, Jean beats the All-Defector by forcing it to simulate him so well that his simulated copy is enough like him to break free of the simulation.
  • Barbarian Tribe: The Oortians are seen like this by the rest of the Solar System. They live in hollowed out comets in small family groups and construct handcrafted spaceships, AIs and other fantastic creations out of smartcoral through religious rites.
  • Assimilation Plot: Pops up a few times.
    • The goal of Sobornost and the Great Common Task is to upload every human mind to the guberniyas. Unfortunately for everyone else, Utopia Justifies the Means.
    • In the third book it is revealed the ultimate goal of the All Defector is to use the Kaminari Jewel to become an expanding bubble of space time and assimilate all other universes into itself.
    • Also in the third book, in an unusual benevolent example, the King of Mars unlocks ALL of the memory locks moments before the Oubliette is destroyed, connecting every person on Mars at an incredibly intimate level to give them some measure of comfort. As they say, on Mars no one has to be a stranger.
  • Beware the Nice Ones:
    • The hsien-kus are eccentric scholars, generally considered the silly aunts of the Sobornost family. They devote themselves wholly to preserving as much of the past world in their virtual constructs as they can. And they are building a system that would tear Earth apart molecule by molecule to be uploaded in perfect accuracy to their guberniya forever.
    • The Zokus are generally considered the "good guys" compared to the Sobornost, as they respect individual choice and freedom, but they will Mind Rape you if you get on their wrong side or have something that they really want. In the latter case they're just really apologetic about it. In the former, they get creative.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: In the end the Supercity Zokus are whisked to safety, Chen and the All-Defector are defeated... and Sobernost's primary opposition is gone, leaving the remaining Founders to do as they will with everyone who's left.
  • Bigger on the Inside: Most spaceships in this universe tend to be quite small, sometimes small enough to fit in a pocket, but those made by Sobornost or the Zoku have virtual spaces that are only limited by their owners' imaginations.
  • Bilingual Bonus/Meaningful Name: The Oortians speak the author's native tongue, Finnish. Mieli means "mind" and Sydän means "heart". Perhonen stands for "butterfly".
    • Not strictly a Bilingual Bonus, but knowing that 'oubliette' is a word for a type of dungeon does make a reveal at the end less surprising.
    • Zoku means "community" in Japanese.
    • Flambeur is French for gambler. Very fitting for a conman.
    • Jean le Flambeur's Oubliette alter ego is named Paul Sernine — an anagram of Arsène Lupin, on whom Jean's character is based.
      • We later learn that Jean is a longtime fan of the Lupin stories, which implies that the choice of name was intentional in-universe, on Jean's part.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The city of Oubliette on terraformed Mars is built on the backs of titanic Atlas Quiets, uploaded human minds controlling gigantic robots. In result it's always on the move, and its layout is constantly changing as the Quiets move around each other. As far as bizzareness of architecture goes, it's actually one of the more normal locations in the novel's transhuman future.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The Sobornost see it as their duty to preserve every mind in existence, but hold all matter in disdain and have no kind of respect to the concept of free will. The Zoku on the other hand don't believe in any kind of permanence, and cheerfully alter their own identities to suit their latest game. They also loathe the concept of devoting oneself to any kind of ideal, considering anyone who is controlled by an ideology living dead.
    • The All Defector. It's a perfect sociopath who believes in nothing but its own survival. Its ultimate goal is to use the Kaminari Jewel to become an expanding bubble of space time and assimilate all reality into itself, since from its perspective this is the only rational conclusion to be made and the fact that they're still alive is just evidence that no one else has been able to do it yet.
  • Boxed Crook: After getting broken out of the Dilemma Prison, Jean is put in a Sobornost body that's functions can be limited or cut off by Mieli at any time to ensure his compliance.
  • Broken Bird: Mieli. She devoutly serves the Sobornost Founder Pellegrini to to get the uploaded mind of her beloved Sydän back to her.
  • Clark's Third Law: Given that it's a post-singularity setting it's inevitable that borderline impossible things pop up, most blatantly the Kaminari Jewel and the Zoku Realm Gates. The Zoku in general seem to like to play up this aspect of their technology to cater to their personal aesthetics.
  • Clock Punk: The Oubliette, most notably with the Watches that measure each citizen's time as a Noble before they are turned into robotic Quiet.
    • Also used, though not described in very great detail, in the wildcode desert surrounding the city of Sirr on Earth, as complicated electronics and nanotech get destroyed in a flash by the native nanotechnology.
  • Cool Ship: Mieli's Perhonen and Jean's old ship, Leblanc, definitely qualify.
  • Death Is Cheap: For the Zokus and Sobornost, at least. The Zokus are primarily defined by their degree of entanglement with others, so as long as enough of their jewels are intact making a new body for someone who "died" is a trivial matter, deserving no more acknowledgement than having a party with close friends. For Sobornost, they fork so many copies of their gogols that the only risk destruction has is a loss of information. Hell, copy-clans leave their names in lower case just to emphasize how meaningless their individual selves are.
  • Deus ex Machina: At the end of The Causal Angel, Mieli uses the Kaminari Jewel to teleport the Super City Zokus into a different universe moments before they would have been destroyed.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Dragons and the All-Defector are (post)human creations, but they are alien and terrifying enough to qualify.
  • Emperor Scientist: Most of the seven Sobornost Founders were originally some of the world's most brilliant scientists from the early era of mind-uploading in the 2060's, and continue their experiments in increasingly massive scale to the present day. Notably, they work in very different fields of expertise; the hsien-kus are sociologists and historians while the chens focus on physics, for example. The King of Mars also qualifies.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The All-Defector always defects, no exception.
  • Expendable Clone: The Sobornost Founders have uploaded their minds to millions of artificial bodies. These collectives are called copyclans, and their members synchronize their memories and brainpower whenever they are together, allowing them to be everywhere in their massive empire at once. It doesn't matter if a few die, since there's always backups. Although their interests don't always coincide, and some of the Founders are said to be in war against themselves. Also, the main protagonist, Jean le Flambeur has millions of copies of himself trapped forever in the Dilemma Prison, but he's just happy that he was the one that got away.
    • The narration refers to the Sobornost Founder copyclans with a lower-case initial to emphasize their expendable nature: the hsien-kus, the sumangurus, the chens, the pellegrinis, etc.
  • Fantastic Slurs: The Zoku refer to the Sobornost and anyone else who devotes their life to an abstract ideal as "meme zombies", while the Sobornost call the Zoku and anyone else opposing their plan to remove uncertainity from the universe as "quantum filth".
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Oortians are descendents of Finns, while the Zoku date their history to the Internet subcultures of the 21st century.
  • Foreign Cuss Word: Mieli swears like a sailor at times — in Finnish.
  • Gentleman Thief: The title character.
  • God Emperor: The Sobornost Founders have programmed every uploaded mind in their collective to feel religious awe towards them — including their own later generation copies.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: The pellegrinis almost always appear to be smoking cigarettes when they make an appearance.
    • Sumanguru smoked cigars when he was human, but unlike Pellegrini, his avatars don't follow the habit.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: In The Fractal Prince Perhonen performs one to save Jean and Mieli from Chen and the Dragons.
    • In The Causal Angel Jean performs one to save Child!Chen from the All-Defector before the guberniya is wiped.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Sobornost Founders arguably qualify. The All Defector has only been seen as a humanoid so far, but then it's exact nature isn't clear
  • Impossible Thief: pretty much any time Jean le Flambeur pulls of a serious con he qualifies for this. Most spectacularly, in the closing moments of the second book it turns out the artifact everybody is fighting over is a fake, and he had already stolen the real one from them without leaving a single trace
  • Info Drop: The author seems particularly averse to exposition, so the only hope a reader has to figure anything out is to piece all the disparate tidbits together. Depending on your disposition, this is either part of the series' charm, or horribly frustrating.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The Jana of the Cannon is really an ancient computer system that contains a brain backup of Chen as a child. Inside it the gogol of Chen is playing on a beach, with his memory resetting every few minutes so he won't notice he's alone.
  • MacGuffin: The Kaminari Jewel doesn't do much in the first two books besides set up the plot of the series, though it takes a more central role in The Causal Angel.
  • Magic from Technology: In The Fractal Prince, the inhabitants of Sirr couch their understanding of Wild Code in terms of Middle-Eastern stories, mythology, and mysticism.
  • Memory Gambit: Jean pulls this surprisingly often, with mixed results. The biggest is unveiled in The Causal Angel, wherein we learn that an earlier, more ruthless Jean le Flambeur arranged to be incarcerated in the dilemma prison after a memory wipe, hoping he could escape as a better person to activate a powerful device that can only be used by those with good intentions. Of course, the new, nicer Jean is horrified, and promptly rebels against his former self.
  • Moral Event Horizon: In The Causal Angel it is revealed that Jean and the Pellegrini were responsible for the collapse. Upon realizing what he had done, Jean was horrified leading him to abandon her and become the God of Theives. When he learns this again - see Memory Gambit - he decides he wants nothing to do with his past self and becomes even more motivated to save Meili and Child!Chen.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In The Causal Angel, Jean crashes the Zoku's quantum communication network as a distraction in order to rescue Mieli. Unfortunately, in doing so, he cripples the Zoku moments before they're attacked by a force of Sobornost ships controlled by the All-Defector. Oops.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Also in The Causal Angel, thanks to the near limitless resources of the Chen guberniya, the All-Defector is able to model Jean's brain to the point where some of the simulations are able to escape into the main Ver they're in. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Not a Game: Isidore's detective work, as he tells Pixel.
  • Order vs. Chaos: The Sobornost see their entire existence as embodiment of Order, imposing themselves on the chaotic universe to eliminate death and uncertainity, but in particular their Protocol War against the Zoku was motivated with this ideology, since the Zoku base their technology on the unpredictable quantum states of matter and reject the concept of permanent identity.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy:
    • Pixil's Zoku. What would you expect from an upload collective descended from online roleplaying guilds?
    • The Sumanguru Warminds of the Sobornost Collective, based on an African warlord adopted in the Founders' ranks, is a more grim version of the trope.
  • Practical Currency: The currency on Mars is time. When one's time as a Noble runs out, their mind gets put into a Quiet work body for a few years to earn more. Think community service meets forced labor.
  • Sapient Ship/Spaceship Girl: Perhonen.
  • Scary Black Man: The sumangurus when they lower themselves to wearing flesh.
  • Shout-Out: Countless, both obscure and popular.
    • Causal Angel briefly features Notch-zoku that is devoted to building monuments and whose symbol is a crudely carved man with a pickaxe.
    • And Mythos-zoku. And Evangelion Zoku. The Zoku are one big collection of Internet-culture Shout Outs because many of them are supposed to be the very same people who contribute in those today and feel nostalgic about them.
  • The Singularity:
    • The breakthrough that lead to the discovery of mind uploading happened approximately 300 years before the story, and the development of technology went out of control in the matter of years, culminating in the event known as the Collapse, which rendered Earth nearly uninhabitable.
    • Another Singularity-event known as the Spike, which lead to the total destruction of the planet Jupiter, happened only some years before the story, and is a driving force in the background of the plot, as all parties are attempting to find out exactly what happened.
  • Social Engineering: Like all good conmen, Jean plays his opponents and innocent bystanders like a fiddle to reach his desired goals.
    • The Great Game Zoku prefer to gather information through this rather than Mind Rape, if they have the time. They can build immensely elaborate scenarios for the person they want to probe and determine what they know from their choices and actions inside the simulation.
  • Spanner in the Works: Jean is a spanner to just about every plotter in the Solar System, eventually including himself, thanks to his past Memory Gambit he failed to take into account that by allowing his personality to be modified to accomplish his greatest achievement he might no longer be willing to follow the steps of his Xanatos Roulette exactly as he originally planned.
  • Steam Punk: Some Zokus are fond of the aesthetic. At one point in Causal Angel Jean has to remind himself that the man he is trying to con is not a goofy steampunk cyborg, but a 300 year old posthuman entity with a quantum brain pretending to be one for his own amusement.
  • Sticky Fingers: Jean will risk going to a literal hell just to steal a piece of jewelry.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The pellegrini honestly thought that she could use the All-Defector for her own ends, forgetting what defines that entity. It's in the name!
  • Transhuman: Practically every character in the story, to greater or lesser extent.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The book introduces numerous exotic concepts by simply referring to them by name, and expects the reader to deduce from the context what they mean. Even when a concept is described, it's rarely done in great detail, or more than once. A great deal of the author's astronomical expertise is also poured into the story, using for the moment hypothetical laws of physics as basis for several Sufficiently Advanced technological innovations, such as strangelet bombs.
  • Wife Husbandry: For the Zoku, you make children for a reason. It can be for something as benign as easing assimilation into a new culture, or as insidious as making a personal connection with a prisoner to extract information without their knowledge.
  • You Will Be Assimilated:
    • If the Sobornost has their way, all minds will be uploaded as Gogols into their planet-sized gubernya diamonoid brains. It seems that they will ask a permission from Transhumans first, at least if they're not hostile. Baseline humans don't get a say in the matter.
    • The All-Defector 's ultimate goal is nothing less than to become the entire universe.
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