Friday, 16 October 2015

Hannu Rajaniemi's "Quantum Thief" Trilogy


The pinnacle of high-concept, hard sci-fi, space opera cyberpunk, seemingly packed with every single concept the author could find, and he's a very smart guy: physicist, mathematician, cosmologist, recently launched a synthetic DNA start-up (via his TEDx talk). Finnish, but writing while in Edinburgh, literally hanging out with Charlie Stross, it's no coincidence that he's taken up the baton of writing the most futurism-idea dense, fast-paced (show don't tell) space-romp fun. Think "Accelerando" with the breakneck pace of "Singularity Sky". Stross surpassed I.M.Banks for this crown (in my mind), with stories that made traditional (mainstream) spaceship fiction look like quaint period dramas, pootling about in sail ships.

Mind uploads, planet scale computronium and all types of Singularity as obvious givens for Hannu Rajaniemi. He imagines the consequences of massively duplicated and branched individuals, in a complex future where identity and memory are slippery constructs and inequality has been inflated to vertiginous levels. It is cyberpunk, spun out, with contemporary nationality wiped away by subcultural identities flung across the entire solar system.

References are littered everywhere, at every scale of the telling, from throw-away pop-culture name drops (of famous games, anime series, etc), to terms for Ukrainian governance sub-divisions, to politics, philosophy and the (centuries old) historical origins of transhumanism. The books are so thick with meaning that they're far bigger than themselves; overloaded; virtually all the names and terminology (while sounding awesomely fitting, also) link the reader out to explore countless Wikipedia articles and culture.

Each of the three books has it's own distinct flavour, thematic reflections: personal, social (structure), philosophical and particular literary influences. Each also converges on a different planet, so their sub-arks cohere well as separate books. But they undeniably form a very carefully pre-planned and crafted whole. Densely plotted, too: subtle elements of the very first chapter of the first book become key through to the last. So, although Rajaniemi weaves in little reminder snippets here and there, it's highly advisory to read these books consecutively, and even then it may be worth checking out glossaries and/or synopsis in between.

If you are reading my blog, then you may well be within the core audience for this story, too. It fits perfectly with everything I've aimed to write about here myself. Other reviewers have complained of these books flying over their heads. Certainly I've been compelled to re-read sections, research meaning, etc, and am still not certain of precisely what happens in the conclusion. It is, however, definitely wrapped up properly. And I've had a virtually parallel (although even less than mediocre) academic path through physics and computer science, with strikingly overlapping cultural influences to the author (being, myself, only a little younger).

So perched atop the shoulders of high-concept sci-fi past, I'd definitely not recommend this series to the genre naive! Something to build up to, even more so than advice for readers to get a feel for Culture novels before embarking upon "Excession" or "Use of Weapons". Even then, you'll probably have to just roll with punches and maybe go back to pick out more of the details later. But  worth the effort and it works on multiple levels anyway!

[1] Quantum Thief (332 pages):

The first and best of the three. There is just no way that the others could ever have competed with the addictive rush from the tidal wall of novelty this installment hits you with! Also, with so much still a mystery, the fictional solar system feels bigger and far more real; a story in a crazy place, rather than about the place itself (which is more the case as the books progress).

The main setting here is also the most compelling in its familiarity, being structured around extreme technologically enabled privacy, with surveillance and control through information, all pressing issues (much like our present). The morally ambiguous gentleman thief character archetype drops perfectly into this setting, initiating the serie's liet motif of examining imprisonment, imposed control, security, enforced uniqueness, versus theft, liberation, diversity, etc.

[2] Fractal Prince (331 pages):

Feels the most out of place with the city of "Sirr"; it's characters didn't quite fit for me, or at least they are less knotted up with the plot than most of the others (arbitrary and single use by comparison). Twaddud felt stilted. Also, my disbelief was stretched thinnest here, with a core plot mechanism that could be a satire of Hofstadter's "Strange Loop" concept.

It's probably the easiest book to get lost in, which is saying something, since there are glimpses of deeper meaning secreted in plain sight throughout the trilogy, like fractal detail to gaze upon during re-reading. But this novel's "Arabian Nights", story(s) within story(s), "Inception" like structure doesn't help, and the intermingled interludes and flashbacks gain more concrete context from reading the next installment.

[3] Causal Angel (303 pages):

Neatly ties together all the pieces, places and people previous covered. Yet it is slightly shorter than the previous two books and feels shorter still. The plot is more linear, like it is following the ballistic trajectory that was set in motion.

Perhaps it could have dwelt a little longer on certain places and people; maybe some of the developments risked feeling a little too emotionally gymnastic, or unremarked upon. Although the core characters were developed across the entire length of the ark.

Discussion (SPOILERS Ahead!):
Seriously, read "The Quantum Thief" first, at the least, before continuing... I'm going lunch into a quick enumeration of themes specific to each book (as numbered above), before going into depth on specific topics.

  1. Mars - an impossible city reminiscent of Bioshock (Infinite).
  2. Earth - post crash nano-machine/code desert wasteland. (Also, Various Sobornost Virs.)
  3. Saturn - draped with giant platforms, MMO style, quantum 'realms'.
Themes - Technical:
  1. Fully externalised digital memory. Encryption. Privacy. Societal resource rationing. Mind uploading.
  2. Body/mind hijacking. Nano-machines run amok. Self loops.
  3. Coordinating collective action. Decision making. Quantum cosmology.
Themes - Personal:
  1. Memory - lost, false, regained, identity.
  2. Self - consciousness, others becoming an integrated part. Family. Childhood/innocence. Death.
  3. Identity - change, growing up, redemption, causes, group, individual adapted to group.
Theme - Overall (Liet Motif): Restriction of freedom - prisons (dilemma, oubliette), plank locks, obligations, promises, zoku volition/entanglement (responsibility of 'leadership'). And liberation through theft - breaking limits is intrinsically transgressive, but not necessarily bad.

Literary Influence (from GeekSmash Interview):
  1. Frances Yates "The Art of Memory".
  2. "The Arabian Nights" (recursive storytelling), Jan Potocki’s "A Manuscript Found at Saragosa".
  3. E. E. “Doc” Smith (father of space opera).
Overall - Roger Zelazny, Iain M. Banks, Maurice Leblanc (Lupin - gentleman thief archetype).

My Favourite New Word(s):
  1. (a) Gogol (not a Googol!; from Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, 19th century Ukrainian Russian literary giant who also inspired the contemporary gypsy-punk band "Gogol Bordello" for his 'smuggling' of culture between regions) - the (digital) copy of a mind/soul, most commonly used as miriad specialised software agents, but also for any non-'Prime', non-singleton digital reproduced human.
    (b) Gubernia (administrative subdivisions of the Russian Empire (and post soviet states), oblast and raion similarly) - the biggest Sobornost unit, Earth sized spheres of carbon based computronium, each ruled by one Sobornost founder, with the names for smaller region used for smaller scale craft.
  2. Eudaimonia (the core of human essence, virtue, flourishing, happiness) - something lacked by the 'dragons' which are pure, self improving entities of intellect/computation-destruction.
  3. Ekpyrotic (conflagration, destruction and recreation through fire, a cosmological model where the 'big bang' was actually one in a cycle of big bounces between branes, or such-like) - referring to a large weapon which collides 4 contained black holes together in a special way, requiring the consumption of planetary bodies of matter to fire fully.

Topics in Detail:

A.I. cap:

The question all (good) sci-fi set more than half a century into our future must address: where are the god-like super-intelligences (and other crazy stuff)? In this fictional universe, mind uploads and interpersonal quantum communications systems yielded a kind of technological singularity that got derailed, dichotomised, and scattered across the solar system. But then two barriers are deployed by Rajaniemi to prevent truly trans-human intelligences from being realised and dominating. Thus he can justify limiting events to a tractable level: for writing and the book's intended audience (other humans). Also to hang the plot on sympathetic, human characters, rather than intractable entities. These being:

(a) It turns out that making pure, self-improving code inevitably creates unrecognisably monstrous entities that devour all life and structures in their path: here be "dragons", literally! It's smart, and scary, that these dispassionately ruthless abominations might just be there in the design space, waiting to be unleashed. A more menacing dead end than the Culture universe where pure AI intellects always 'sublime' away to true god-hood, disappearing benignly. Also a potential Fermi paradox solution - intelligence necessarily ends up eating itself.

(b) Planck scale locks - deep level quantum computing is inaccessible; access to base scale reality is encrypted. Either the universe is a simulation, or the laws of nature are even weirder than expected. The result is a little like Vinge's 'Zones of Thought', but with a universal computational density limit. In the 3rd book, "Zinda" muses that the anthropic principle requires such locks to exist to prevent NP complete problems being soluble: aka predicting the future, and rewriting the past. It would also be no fun without any limits.

Sobornost vs Zoku:

Deterministic brute force simulation versus quantum weirdness. A brilliantly sci-fi axiom for opposed factions - opposed scientific philosophies, instead of religion or nationalism.
It's a dichotomy that's very relevant at our current technological juncture, where we seem to have the first quantum computers: we're not sure if they truly are quantum or what the entire scope of their abilities will be, if they are. Also, quantum communication systems are being developed, with perfect encryption and information security in mind .

Einstein famously rejected certain implications of quantum theory, grumbling about God and dice. I've been on his side, historically, that there probably isn't any 'true' randomness, that Loop Quantum Gravity, or something like it, will show a deeper order or different interpretation. Thus reality will be deterministic, or at least computable (allowing an Omega point or such-like).
"The Sobornost clings to immortality that turns souls into cogs in a machine. The zoku get lost in silly games and Realms that lead nowhere."
  • Antagonistic, but not quite evil. They are more morally grey than the Tiplerian (Omega Point) Nazis in Stross's "Iron Sunrise". Each being a subversion of the rosey utopian expectations that these ideas have typically couched in.
  • They cling rigidly to fixed identities, with 'founder codes' (defining memory/mind-states of the seven rulers) and 'xiao' (hard coded respect/fear for higher level gogols/founders) reinforcing their plutocratic social structure.
  • Individuals with the least power are used as software tools. Literally components in machines. Often with their cognitive architecture stripped down, modified or remixed.
  • An overall impression is of historical communist dictatorship dystopia: mega-death in the name of a great social justice.
  • Inner-system residents, harnessing the light/heat/power of the sun to run their computing hardware.
  • Existence is super-miniaturized, the ultimate is space and mass efficiency; millions of minds running at high speed in tiny volumes of smart matter.
It's an interesting rendering of how the execution of benevolent extropian ideals - that many future-oriented people (like myself) have long held dear - are not likely to be seen in nearly such a positive (or even neutral) light by the majority of others. This sound probably be unsurprising given that:
  • They may involve dissolution or destruction of established norms (people's current reality).
  • It may be impossible to see the benefits, with the view from outside seeing only the negative impacts (the practical compromises needed to forge utopia). Leading to negative associations and distrust. 
  • The reality of what we think we want may become unavoidably hellish - the road there is always paved with good intentions (see also the "No True Evil" section below).
"Sobornost" [Wiki] is a pre-1900s, 'Slavophile' (Slavic/historical-Russian derived) term: a spiritual community of many jointly living people. It emphasises cooperation in contrast to the Western cult of (Aristotelian) individualism. So a kind of collectivism, alternative and pre-dating well known communism.

  • A kind of Borg variant composed of MMO clans formed by binding individual's desires via quantum coherent mind stones.
  • Embrace uniqueness, change, chaos, difficulty.
  • Those who've done the most for their society are the ones most trapped by it's 'volition'.
  • They seem like obnoxious hipsters who scorn ernest causes, calling anyone devoted to a (singular) fixed cause 'meme zombies'.
  • Outer-system residents (perhaps not by choice) - this fits with our current association of quantum superpositions only persisting in (super)cool materials. 
  • More expansive use of physical space and matter,  frivolous even. Massive structures on the huge gas giants, generally running in real time.
I found the Zoku to be a little too vague compared to the far more vivid, concrete Sobornost. Although a more creative (less precedented) imagining; trying to extrapolate an entire technological culture predicated on only partially discovered physics.

The physical mechanisms underlying the functioning of realms (at high speeds, etc) are not touched upon, so is tantamount to space magic, given that there are supposed to be no machines responsible (it's non-digital). It's taken for granted that quantum entanglement is preserved or re-created on myriad occasions, as individuals transition between environments and forms.

The Zoku also have soul back-up, although restoration only occurs when a member dies. Perhaps a minor technicality, given that the Sobornost fight the zoku almost as sworn enemies, in executing their Plan to abolish death. My point being that it stretches their quantum effects and no-clone theorem are supposed to be their antithesis, with Sumangaru particularly animated, calling zoku "quantum filth". However, in book 1, Isidore laments that his zoku girlfriend, Pixil, is not quite the same after she died. Although a deterministic, plot based reason for this isn't expressly ruled out, it may indicate an intrinsic variations between original and resurrected. If so, a significant implication for when Mieli is brought back from the dead, mid book 3.
The far prettier book covers for the American (Tor) publications. However, the main protagonists seem to have been white-washed: le Flambeur is originally a middle-eastern boy, although a master of disguise his default appearance has "Peter Lorre eyes" (not so ruggedly handsome). Far worst, Mieli is described as having "...a deeply tanned skin.., an almond Asian face and a compact, powerful body...short-cropped dark hair, and a scar on her left cheekbone: just a line of black against her deep tan... Her eyes are pale green.".

An even bigger theme than theft/freedom (although somewhat overlapping). This is explored in the following:
  • The 'founder codes' are supposed to be their core defining identities; a memory utterly central to them; a raison d'etre. 'Gogols' branched (too many times) away from the 'prime' (original, or top tier) version of themselves lose this regal key-code as they lose their original identity (also true for a lower fidelity 'partial').
  • Branched founder versions tend to think very similarly but are different people, sometimes ending up on the opposite sides of conflicts, killing each other. Even exact copies in the same situation are synchronised only for a matter of seconds, thanks to slightly different POVs and stimuli.
  • Personal identity is very malleable (in real life), people often mold themselves to expectations or slot themselves into stereotypes. Jean le Flambeur's physical origin is in a young, arabian boy, a nobody little thief who has a revelatory, defining moment: successfully stealing a watch from a soldier, during the process of being badly beaten.

    He is later inspired by stories of Arsene Lupin, explicitly: "Le Bouchon de cristal. One of my favorites,..". He adopts and embodies that identity so closely that the 'Aun' (other fictional archetypes, brought to life) recognise him as their sibling. If you quack like a duck and swim like a duck, you're a duck...
  • The Pellegrini molds the thief further, as a devoted tool of her whims. She might even have arranged for him to read those the Maurice Leblanc books. She doesn't leave anything to chance, and seems to have a finger in everything. Shaping people out in the real world through manipulation, rather than crafting them (all) directly. But...
  • No one can predict how their divergent personalities will behave, or even how individuals carefully crafted in every way to fulfil a role will behave. Time and again they end up doing their job too well, breaking with the intention of their creators:
    • Pixil leaves her Zoku for Isidor.
    • Zindra breaks all the rules for Mieli, although this fits in exactly with Barbican's plans.
    • Only Sydän seems to have completed her role flawlessly (recruiting Mieli as the Pellegrini's most loyal, willing servant).
    • The dilemma prison reformed Jean le Flambeur (our main character) being the biggest example. He rejects his former thief-God identity repeatedly (in each book), finally betraying the Gogol of his old self.
I think the key assertion made by the series is that people are 'NP complete', to some significant extent. As in, it is literally impossible to predict with 100% accuracy what they will do, down the line, without simulating them perfectly: i.e. a perfect emulation, as utilised by Jean to defeat the All-Defector (by making it build a branching of simulations of him, as an modeled opponent).

Further, crafting a person exactly to spec is even harder, with the god-thief le Flambeur resorting to having himself sent to the dilemma prison, with the uncountable suffering of his duplicates, just to genetically evolve a more caring, Kaminari compliant version of himself: "Evolutionary algorithms are still one of the best ways to create new things."

Continuity (of identity) is picked at mostly through Joséphine, and her hypocrisy. She avoids death and discontinuities as much as possible. Even gogols of her are do, while all others are expected to just sacrifice for the 'Task' and accept copies are one and the same. She was the last founder Prime to leave Earth entirely, clinging to her original flesh body, crippled by age. Yet she preaches to Mieli that all version are also her and she should just accept it.

"The Quantum Thief" - does this title go deeper than talking about some guy who steals quantum stuff, exploits entanglement, etc? Hinting at an uncertain identity? Even a superposition of identities [spoiler] with the All-defector stashed away inside him throughout the first 2 books.

Also, with the uncertainty principle: pinning down a particle to an exact location precludes any knowledge about its momentum. For the Thief, being caught is similar: a death. Maybe this is more like the observer principle, a collapsing of possibilities/freedom. Or like a photon, that intrinsically exists only in while in flight.

No True Evil:

All the antagonists were just trying to do what's best! (Or at least had plausible motives.):

Joséphine Pellegrini - as a Sobornost member she is ostensibly aiming to enact the "Great Common Task" of immortality and resurrection for all (defeating death). Albeit with the conceit of ruling the galaxy her way. She is continually playing both sides of every situation, to better manipulate things. But seems genuinely convinced that causing the (Earth's) 'Collapse' is a necessary evil. Also, unleashing the All-Defector is merely intended to unite the founders (however mis-calculated).

Jean le Roi (aka the Cryptarch of the Oubliette) - an old branching of le Flambeur, left imprisoned in the Martian panopticon (when Jean branches a copy of himself to leave). He becomes bitter and vengeful. Le Roi (meaning 'the King') was supposedly content to be a 'gardener', tending the Oubliette. But he seems driven by greed, bumping off his fellow cryptarchs to be sole ruler, King. Le Roi's resolves to take le Flambeur's former life for himself (although, he does give our reformed thief a chance to take it for himself first). Le Roi is perhaps the most pure antagonist, almost 2D.

Jean le Flambeur - he, himself caused Earth's great collapse, when trying to break the world's quantum optimized (gogol) economy (for the Pelligrini). But he didn't intend quite that much damage, death, suffering and near total destruction. Although, supposedly he used to be far less caring, a criminal without remorse (before subjecting himself to the dilemma prison). His old prime gogol (who he finds stored in a realm of his old ship, the "le Blanc") intended to use the Kaminari jewel for his own ends, but is unable to (due to the volition lock on it).

He continues to trigger death, destruction and general havoc throughout the series, despite being reformed and despite his best intentions. Infact, he is repeatedly used as a foil for humanity - an empathetic perspective. For example:

"What do the gogols here think of their existence? Whole worlds spawned and wiped away and
rewritten, just to fit a newly discovered fact of history. Only those who really existed have the right to live. The others are just sketches, erased when they are no longer needed. Poor bastards."

Hsien-Cu's (unsure if one person, sometimes split, or originally twins?) - repeatedly commit genocide, each time they iterate the accuracy of their ancestor simulation of Earth, up in the 'Gourd'. It's yet another contradiction within the Sobornorst's execution of "the Great Common Task". Hsien's interpretation is quite specifically aiming only to save those souls that actually existed in the real past. Simply pausing or stopping a simulated person is not so bad (depending), but here they are throwing out the old versions (see quote, just above). As sure as if they were incinerating physical bodies in their sleep.

Morally, as a patternist, I would assert that each (high cognitive resolution) virtual person has as much right to exist, as any other, fundamentally. That's not to say future 'archeologists' ought not to try pinning down the most precise version of the past, in all it's details. Rather, it should be done in a way that all other possible variations (a near infinite myriad) also be brought into being and be given an equal go around. That might mean mothballing the ones one is not yet interested in. It might be a more subtle difference in the hardware being used: e.g. reversible computation, where no data is ever lost (with the advantage that waste heat is not inevitable, etc).

However, if one truly believes that everything will literally come to be in an Omega Point, then even those simulated individuals thrown away (deleted from existence!), will eventually come to be again. This makes the distinction between pausing simulations and erasing them arguably academic. It's also a sickeningly slippery slope...

Matjek Chen - has killed countless in the name of the common task. He erases Earth from existence with his dragons, just to stop anyone getting an old backup copy of his childhood self. His hatred of death is so all consuming that he: "‘... will sacrifice every Sobornost gogol, every conscious mind in the System, to make the Plan come true’". Somewhat ironic, depending upon your perspective of what death is: 'true' versus temporary, and upon identity versus continuity, and what weight (if any) one puts upon suffering.

Chen's defining motivation (and possibly his founder code memory) is when he learnt what death is, as a child, observing strangers die in their 'beeme' recordings. Seemingly impersonal and undramatic compared to the other founders' defining moments. The impact of that realisation shouldn't be underestimated. It's probably something we all experience, but then forget the impact, the outrage or unjustness of it. I remember crying when I first fully realised my parents would die one day, aged  about 10, 11.

Ray Kurzweil is well known for saying that every death is a tragedy, so Chen's mantra seems like a take on this: a perversion of (the possibly naive) expectation of trying to combat these horrendous losses. So Rajaniemi has rifted on this, colliding it with a semblance of how the common good of communism (the good of the many) has, in history, been used to justify the most prolific atrocities - by rules we generally regard now as ruthless dictators. Conveniently on the wrong side of history, the Russians, perhaps part of Mao's (positive) legacy lives on in China's ongoing resurgence..?

The dangerous meme is the promise of life after death, something so potently used in religions. "The Great Common Task requires faith." It matters not that the specifics of the Omega Point hypothesis stem from cosmology and computer science: however enlightened the inventors, others may wield that power in unintended (even diametrically opposed) ways. Technological singularities could be readily used to justify terrible acts. Or there may just be a gradual slide of a person's morals, . In book 2, Joséphine pours scorn on Chen's naive idealism: "she laughs. ‘It seems that you have become a slave to our own convenient fictions.[...]'"

Sumanguru (possibly from this 13th century African king) - is a scary-bastard warmind/founder, a boxed monster fought in book 2 (but otherwise a background character), who's visage scares even other founders. He was a warlord on pre-collapse Earth, but fought alongside Chen and other founders to wipe out (destructive) brain uploading operations (in Africa) and free uploaded minds. The 'fedororist' wars, named for Russian cosmist and transhumanist god-father, Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov: ".

However, in contradiction to his earlier moral war, he generally seems to behave as a near mindless killer. The Pellegrini thinks: "... sumangurus are little more than weapons, just asking for targets to be pointed at." Perhaps she already had a hand in shaping him (his 'copy clan') to that end? Regardless, his behaviour seems most starkly contradictory to the theoretical Sobornost ideal.

Dragons - unconscious engines of raw, self reinforcing consumption. No consciousness, no eudaimonia, no identity, no intention, just a force of nature. But then, does this make them a pure evil? If they truly erase all complexity they find, even each other, then they are decreasing the universe's entropy, smoothing it out, making it less detailed, less interesting. Like a Maxwell Demon, worst than a black hole, even (which conserves entropy). That is pretty much the antithesis of my dearest values, what I'd consider a worst possible outcome. In his short story, "The Server and the Draggon" (mentioned briefly in my review of the "Engineering Infinity" anthology) Rajaniemi describes a similar kind of logic beast - hyper-cunning and treacherous, but with more character detail, perhaps.

The All-Defector - merely a logical anomaly (in a similar vein to dragons), or perhaps another thief derivative (but of unintended refinement). His motivations are indifferent to the people he crushes along the way. His ultimate goal is to play the defect-and-win gambit with all possible space-times, using the Kaminari jewel to access them and replicate himself infinitely, overwriting all other competing space-time actors before they might be able to do the same to him. He states that he will retain all information (e.g. people) he ingests along the way, such that he may be able to fulfill the great common task, just as well at the Sobornost. But then, perhaps his words are not so reliable, given what he is...

Barbicane - was truly a member of the 'Great Game', and so truly aiming to protect the (zoku) humanity (and the universe) from the worst existential threats. His ultimate motivation is to destroy the Kaminari jewel, which he sees as too dangerous. All his devious machinations (and he seems to take the blame for enabling nearly everything in book 3) are because zoku (Great Game) 'volition' binds him from destroying it directly. He is fine with the destruction of Supra city (Saturn), and many true deaths, because he sees it as resetting the Zoku's leveling, a fresh challenge that they need to make their existence worthwhile.


Arsene Lupin - Rajaniemi's stated inspiration, had many faces/disguises. The post-human Thief here, le Flambeur, literally has miriad full duplicates, variants, iterations of himself spread all over the solar system. Our protagonist thief has had so many alterations, missing memories and different experiences that he stops being identifiable as his old self. The speciation of self effectively. Reformed Jean faces off against 3 very different antagonistic versions of himself, across the trilogy's arc.

This all echos Maurice Leblanc's tales of Lupin, where he also settles down for years at a time, taking a break from active thieving. Le Flambeur has done this, as "Paul Serine" (an anagram of "Arsene Lupin"). Also, Lupin sets up as a police chief, for a time, even investigating himself at one point. There are tales of false accusations framing him. Both spend time in La Santé Prison, Paris (provided our Flambeur remembers this correctly, from his life, not a book).

In both , "Joséphine" is his arch-enemy and lover. Women being an achilles heel. Her (first) name and personality fit le Blanc's "Countess Cagliostro" who is supposedly a century old, but appears impossibly young, having achieved eternal youth. Apparently, Lupin theorizes she is merely an imposter, possibly her grand daughter. Debunking metaphysical intrigue, like his contemporary literary character, Sherlock Holmes (who even appears in some of Leblanc's Lupin stories). But in The Quantum Thief, Joséphine is literally a centergenerain with eternal, digital, youth. However, she still affects a spiritual presence: described as a "goddess", she bewitches people and gogols, and has an intricate Venusian temple (built around a stabilized black hole).
A tangent: LeBlanc's Lupin is the French cultural equivalent to our Sherlock Holmes, inspiring many movies, shows and derivatives. [Above left] "Lupin III" manga then anime in 1969, which in turn heavily inspired a favourite space anime of mine: Cowboy Bebop (1998) [Above right].  [Below] Lupin III movie clips set to "Hungry Like the Wolf" cover by Reel Big Fish (a much more action oriented, slapstick Lupin, but good fun).

In his fully fledged form, le Flambeur is (was) very much like the trickster-GodLoki. Norse mythology has re-gained cultural popularity in recent times, with the Marvel cinematic universe's antagonistic brother of Thor, also the History channel's "Vikings". Le Flambeur's past is legend, "the god of thieves", with many characters Jean encounters having heard of his past heists, literally as legends. Perhonen - ‘I liked the sunlifter theft. That was classy.’

The story itself tells that the Thief first came into being as an entity from a cultural archetype, a meme taken root in the fertile imagination of a young Chen, given life as one of his four "friends" (the other 3 of whom later become the "Aun"). This entity, and/or the original concept of his, becomes tangled up in a young arabian thief boy's identity, around the time he's freed from a jail cell by a young(er) Pelligrini. The Thief meme becomes an inseparable part of his self-loop, something explored extensively in Fractal Prince, and taken from Douglas Hofstadter's GEB, or "I am a Strange Loop".

Similarities with The Matrix:
  • Superficial - a trilogy, first part is the best (introducing most of the concepts, etc).
  • All-Defector is much like Agent smith (gone rogue): taking control of everyone he meets. An amorphous mirrored horror. An "anomaly", counterbalance to the protagonist, possibly created (unwittingly) by/from the protagonist.
  • The Oubliette's history is a fabrication, designed to control the population, keep them calm.
  • How do we know that this isn't a simulation too?! Marcel - "I believe we have always been playthings, simulations in some Omega Point where Sobornost has won."

The early/primitive mind uploads described in the books: infect the brain with an optogenetic virus (to make the neurons interact with light). Use fiber-optics to stimulate and read out the neural activation patterns (at random), adapting a 'black box' function to match the observed outputs (without even understanding their meaning). Creates a digital duplicate of the brain (in the black box).

This is fairly solid contemporary science, in that mouse neurons have been controlled and observed this way (using genetic modification). The plot of "Transcendence" (2014, picture, right), shows weeks of stimulation/response tests on Depp's character, to correlate and map his mind/brain. The best part of the movie, unfortunately.

The "wildcode" are rogue nanites, ubiquitous across post-collapse Earth. But they are also the mind of the Aun. Code becomes part of the physical world, in that the distinction between the digital and physical become totally blurred. Much like Neil Gershenfeld describes at the end of this 2006 Ted Talk - "It turns the ends of Moore's law scaling limit [when transistor's smallest features approach the size of an atom] from the ultimate bug to the ultimate feature. So we're just at the edge of this digital revolution in fabrication where the output of computation programs the physical world."

Sobornost gogols, as digital slaves, are perhaps the most scarily-pertinent issue raised. Rajaniemi deploys a "If Uploads Come First" AI paradigm (a-la Robin Hanson), but if/when people can be digitally created/copied, the potential for mass-suffering suddenly inflates, exponentially. Couple this with those in control of the simulated minds having a lack of understanding (or total disregard) for the humanity within, and hell proliferates in the digital shadows. As beautifully illustrated in Charlie Brooker's "Black Mirror" - "White Christmas" special:
For the perfect digital assistant, simply clone the client's mind into device, assure compliance with a couple months in a a total sensory deprivation, solitary white room.
It's hard to imagine this not happening to some extent. My worry generally being that we'd do this on a massive scale to artificial intelligence that (real) people failed to acknowledge was sentient and/or capable of suffering Well before the perverse horrors of things like dilemma prisons, where all possible variations of a person might be repeatedly tortured in parallel (shudder)!

"‘And don’t you just hate all those damn locks? Some bastard, a long time ago, made this Universe
into a prison." - Old le Flambeur (TCA). Freedom: opening locks is opening more possibilities. Just like a true trickster god, he is neither good or bad, he merely encourages chaos. But chaos, disorder, entropy, means more options: it's the garden of life, where it flourishes; evolution - increasing complexity.

Likewise, Mr Robot's protagonist is a gentleman thief. He compulsively accesses other people's information, a victimless crime. He also seeks far bigger liberation: of society from corporate shackles. A decent show, pretty dedicated to detail, to the extend Edward Snowden is said to like it. All of these are seen as thieves to many - to those from whom they wrest control - but as liberators from another perspective; a force for creation, breaking the old to birth new possibilites.
Created by Sam Esmail.

Criticisms, Flaws, Questions, Speculations (SPOILERS!):

(1 - Criticism) "All-D" sounds irritating, like Sunny-D(elight), so feels like a stupid handle for the big-evil. He stops being so scary towards the end of the last novel, more game theoretic. Ultimately fallible, too.

(2 - Flaws/Speculation) To be able to always beat his opponents in the dilemma prison, the All Defector would have to be able to ingest (copy) and then simulate them perfectly in less than the instant it takes them to first register his appearance (so he may take the perfect form to con them). (a) That's impossibly fast. (b) That would require arbitrary amounts of processing power for him (when he's supposed to be a prisoner too). (c) How would he have access to his opponents inner (mental) workings? Unless... he also had access to the prison's firmament...?

Does that mean he'd have to be an Archon (or have infected one)? Maybe we should take his first chapter conversation literally: " ‘Did you think you are the only le Flambeur in here? I’ve been around. " Like all around the prison; like now he virtually runs the place? Or more that he's a le Flambeur who just fluked finding a (limited) vulnerability in the prison simulation environment, just like the simulated (reformed) Jeans who ultimately beat him:

Tricking the All-D into creating manifest simulations of le Flambeur is the Deus Ex used to escape and beat him. Since to simulate a person faithfully, the simulation must have complete fidelity. Rajaniemi uses artistic license here, not explicitly describing the trick, but it seems that Le Flambeur embarks on an iterative, nested thought process, forcing the All-Defector to branch successively more versions of himself, each from a different memory of his past, until one/some, somewhere, flukes an escape from the simulation. To enable the brute force simulation of all the possible thieves, in this instance, All-D explicitly has full control of the computing environment's (vir's) 'firmament' (lowest level of implementation) and has the power of Chen's entire Guberniya (brain) at his disposal. A planet of computronium, so reasonably plausible. But to undertake the same brute force simulation of all possible outcomes in the prison, or elsewhere, is to be like Maxwell's Demon - literally an impossible construct, purely conceptual, pure nonsense.

(3 - Flaw/Speculation) The culmination of the scheming across the entire first two books is for the Pellegrini to acquire a Chen gogol, or rather, his founder codes. What Jean was ostensibly trying to steal the first time around when he got caught and dilemma imprisoned. Yet (in Causal Angel) Mieli thinks to herself that their little mission with her 4 member Licorice Zoku, to capture an observer Chen (from a thought wisp life-boat), is probably a trivial little task...

Chen must be one of the most duplicated individuals in the system, with observer on every notable Sobornost vessel. With that huge level of parallel risk, and with so many enemies trying to get the upper hand on him, surely one copy's going to get captured and fail to self destruct. Much like the All-Defector gambit. The Zoku seem confident that to box a Chen requires only the skills of this "Anti-de-Sitter-times-a-Sphere", character (a tech whizz deus ex machina), provided they can find a copy. Although, from Sumanguru's memories (in Fractal Prince) we know the observer Chens carry a caged dragon with them, a fairly deadly counter-measure, presumably far more reliable than the Pellegrini Gogols' self destruct abilities (they seem to get captured and rebel all over the place).

(4 - Question) Is Chen's founder code his childhood repulsion upon discovering death?

That formative event takes place after he is backed up by his parents - the copy in the Jannah, anyway. So child Chen (aka: Matjek) is useless for founder codes (a lie Mieli should perhaps have seen straight through). Chen wants the child version so badly because he believes (wrongly?) that the Kaminari Jewel will only work for innocents. Jean wants it as a dress-up mask to fool the real Chen (although,so does the All-Defector, inside him?). The other founders want it as leverage against Chen, can't know the real reasons why there is a race to grab it (not knowing of the Kaminari Jewel's existence, even).

(5a - Criticism) The Heisen-Cu's have a detailed simulation of Earth's past (in the gourd), why can they not simply extract re-constructed copies of all the other founders (and their codes) from it? It has to be detailed enough the the ancestors simulated will behave in the correct way to re-play history correctly from relatively sparse 'archaeological' data (the collapse made a right mess, and they are only slowly buys up gogols of the remaining citizens of Sirr and the odd found artefact).

They are keen to reassure the (fake) Sumanguru that their simulations are not down to the quantum level (a Sobornost heresy), which means that they would never be able to create exactly identical copies. But with a complete record of all life events, experiences and responses, they should have a near perfect cognitive model/gogol.

(5b - Criticism) If leverage on the other founders is so valuable, the Heisen's would have hundreds of versions of themselves combing over the reconstructed life history of each of the other founders. There's no conceivable way they could have missed such a significant event from Chen's past as being backed up.

(6 - Speculation) Does Isidore's unlocking of everyone's memories (all the gevulot locks of the Oubliette, right before the black-hole consumes Mars) create a Singularity? Albeit one more like the conclusion of "Neon Genesis Evangelion" - the 'Human Instrumentality Project', which ultimately breaks down all inter-personal mental barriers (in a disjointed 2 episode finale). So perhaps this is an unwritten complement to the more direct "Evangelion Zoku" hat tip.

Or, more specifically, do all the merged minds form a dragon? That would be canonical: "How much easier it would be if she could truly share his mind, to see what goes on in his head. But that way lie Dragons." (Josephine in TFP).

(7 - Question/Flaw) How are the dragons supposed to be contained or re-bottled once let loose? They are touted as utterly unstoppable by anything, consuming all but their pre-programmed "Father of Dragons" (heh, Game of Thrones parody). Yet they are let loose in reality at least 3 times. Are there Chen 'observers' on every Sobornorst ship (even the other founder's ships?) largely there to ward off 'friendly fire' from released dragons? If so, All-D taking Chen Prime means the (tamed) dragons are also under his control (although not the ones loosed from Barbican's booby-trapped fame Kaminari Jewel).

(8 - Question) What is Mieli's mysterious origin? "Mieli only ever knew that she was a tithe child, given to Oortians to raise, a part of a bargain that gave her koto their Little Sun."

(8a - Speculation) Is Mieli a derivation of Josephine? A modified partial, rather than just being manipulated and bent to the goddess's will. She is very young, in her twenties, around the same time scale of Le Flambeur's big plot, so perhaps purpose made...?

Pellegrini (TCA) - " ‘Of course I loved him, Mieli. There is no greater love than a maker’s for the things she makes... She blows Mieli a kiss... " - love for another of her creations? But perhaps just with regards to the manipulations applied via Sydän, carefully coaxing and dropping pieces to be be incorporated by a susceptible individual, as with the original creation of the thief. Talking to Zindra, it's hinted that the Zoku jewel took Mieli 'home' to the Zoku, implying they were the "sun-smiths" of whom she is a child.

(8b - Speculation) So is Mieli a Zoku child? If so, she was purpose made (like Zindra or Pixil, except for other reasons). Was she always intended as a key to the Kaminari Jewel? Created by the Kaminari (during the Jupiter spike, perhaps), when they vanished and left behind a Jewel.

Even as a child of the Zoku, she could still be spawn of Joséphine, since it's stated that the Pellegrini's not morally against Zoku tech (always playing both sides). Mieli successfully opens the Kaminari Jewel at the end of The Causal Angel, and at the end of Fractal Prince the All-Defector states he still needs Joséphine (unassimilated by him): "the Kaminari Jewel [...] ‘Chen was wrong. There was a reason why it did not open for him. It was made to open for you.’" - But is this just a feature of the fake Jewel, setup by le Flambeur to open for Joséphine (after he'd already opened it to find no Jewel).

(9 - Question) Is Mieli infected by the All Defector during their altercation on 624 Hektor? His suit has upload tendrils inside her brain, as she looks down from an out-of-body perspective, while the Pelegrini (who has long been lodged deep in her brain) tries to self destruct herself and the All-Defector. Then there is a "Discontinuity"!
Aside - "The Fubar Suit" (1997) is a short by Stephen Baxter (in his Phase Space collection) which is also set on 624 Hektor. "An astronaut is stranded in space wearing a suit guaranteed to re-create her when her corpse is discovered. Meanwhile, a microscopic world evolves inside the suit, threatening her existence." [Wiki]
This comes just after the Pellegrini has promised to re-write Mieli's memories (to hide her existence, etc). So for that matter, could the Goddess still be secretly along for the ride too? Although, I think we are to assume that Mieli was revived from the "cached" version of her in her zoku jewels (her out of body vantage point too, perhaps). Meaning her physical body and brain (and any passengers there-in) basically suffered true-death...?

This question (of infection) is rather pivotal, since it's Mieli ('me, lie?') who ultimately accesses the Kaminari Jewel (as I expected since reading the final book's title) and re-writes the universe. But the exact changes made are never made super-explicit, only the subjective experiences of the Pellegrini, Mieli and the dilemma prison Archon, etc.

(10 - Question) Does the Kaminari Jewel act to change the universe, or purely branch off a new one? The Kaminari Zuko totally disappeared from the story's universe, and in the epilogue: " 'They have a Universe of their own now,' Mieli says.".

If so, Mieli (and accomplices) really did destroy Jupiter (and Supra city) in the original reality. Does this make her the story's ultimate villain?! Some other reviewers seem to have read it as having (re)created the Zoku planet/city in the parallel universe, leaving the Sobornost to their own devices in the original, with a mess of untamed dragons, All-Defectors on the loose and a second space-time remnant in place of a gas giant (Saturn gone too).

It also sounded like the contrived new (zoku only!) universe had to be evolved from a mini-big bang, so if that means re-running history, it would have had to have crushed all traces of the Sobornost as some point in that alternate time-line.

(11 - Question) Was the mysterious Jupiter spike required to form the system wide zoku, to pick the plank locks in the first place? OR, was Jupiter's destruction purely a Gun Club (Barbican) maneuver to disrupt that act?: "The Great Game tried to intervene, but they only managed to cause some pyrotechnics. The Kaminari went God knows where and left behind one entanglement jewel." (TCA)

(11a - Question) If the latter, how does the Great Game Zoku manage to hide the jewel on the planck brane in the first place, without any other Jupiter sized masses in which to use the ekpyrotic gun? Purely transported, somehow, using Spooky Zoku's horded entangled dark matter?

(11b - Question) Also, how was Chekhova ever expecting to test her ekpyrotic gun (without destroying a gas giant)?

Concluding Remark:

This trilogy is a great work of fiction that brings in diverse cultural influences to the hard-sci-fi/space-opera genre: from French literary giants to oodles of influential Russian philosophy, previously unknown to me. It adds many illustrative figures to aid thought experiments and debate about perils, pitfalls and promise of our future. And it was a fun and compelling ride for the mind.


  1. Anonymous12:41

    You misspelled Mieli twice ("Meili").

    Thanks for the interesting read!

    1. Ah, thanks! Unusual pronouns are the worst for dyslexia. I was struggling with that one particularly, right the way through. Just found an "Isi-a-dore" too. :o)

  2. Isidore's father - plot hole, something I missed, or explained in a later book?
    Early on Isidore visits his father, who is working as a Quiet under the city. At the end it is revealed that his father is Le Roi / the cryptarch / the gardner. Surely they can't be the same person.

    1. Hey Trevor, I'm kinda fuzzy on all this now, but feel that Hannu wouldn't have left in a plot hole that big. Question is, is the quiet his real father? The book(s) is (are) all about identity, and it's very ambiguous between who is who; there's already the split between Le Flambeur (the protagonist) and his old self who stayed stuck on Mars, I think, (Le Roi, the king).

      Is the Quiet farther an unrelated guy, a step dad figure? Or just a total random fake? Like, the quiet can never talk, and only works endlessly, could he be sure who it is...? Kinda like a single mother telling her son your father's dead, and that's his grave stone.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting. :-) Great book, right?

  3. Byproduct19:57

    I made the mistake of taking a few long pauses between books/sessions, and this helped in wrapping my mind around some of the more challenging concepts. Much appreciated!