By John Clute
9 August 2010
Once upon a time, rumour has it, Victor Gollancz (1893–1967) used to do this; but then he owned the house (1927– ). When he felt in the mood, the story goes, starting as soon as he founded the soon-to-be-famous UK publishing firm that bore his name, he got in the habit of composing the jacket copy for his own releases, and saying exactly what he felt: an owner's privilege. Without any direct evidence, I've always therefore assumed that the judicious essay-length screed that takes up most of the jacket of the nightmarish Hitler Wins SF novel, Swastika Night (1937) by Katharine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine, was by Gollancz himself, just as I've always assumed that he couched the magisterially confident short blurb for the first English-language publication of Franz Kafka's The Trial, also a 1937 release: a remarkable year for any publisher. It reads in full:
The Trial, although only now translated, may justly be called one of the most famous—and, many would add, one of the few really great—novels of our time.
Which is exactly enough said.
What Gollancz blurbs accomplished back then, in all their unpredictable variousness (even negative comments got in), was a sense that their author(s) wrote as though to a community of readers adult enough to be told the truth and still make the purchase. This, of course, was a form of flattery. (Even the numerous Gollancz dustwrappers without any comment at all flattered prospective buyers by implying they knew what they were looking for.) Times did, of course, change, the stillicidium of commodification ate our brains, etc: we know the pack-drill.
But here we are in 2010, and here's an Uncorrected Manuscript Proof of Hannu Rajaniemi's first novel, The Quantum Thief, and here is Simon Spanton, Deputy Publishing Director of Gollancz, who is blurbing the book for advance readers in a conversational tone that reminds us of the pre-War culture whose assumptions of a common language we were too late to share, and suggests en passant that SF readers themselves might profitably be addressed as though they were sentient, even in this day and age. He is describing Jean de Flambeur, the quantum thief of the book, who has been incarcerated in the dread Dilemma Prison, where he has been forced into an "endless series" of games with innumerable Virtual Reality doubles, which are supposed to teach him wisdom or something, and maybe help him gain his memory back, because (like any infinitely potentiated cod-gnostic sock-puppet of the magus within) all memory of his previous selves has been occluded. Tough on a guy. But soon, Spanton tells us,
He is rescued by the enigmatic Mieli and her intelligent (and really rather jealous) ship Perhonen. So far so-so. But from this conventional beginning Rajaniemi spins an extraordinary tale. . . .
As I'd only come to this copy after having already read the numbingly so-so first chapter of this novel, encountering Spanton's copy saved the day for me. I felt spoken to; and I felt sufficiently honoured by this to follow Simon Spanton's advice, and turn the page.
We enter the book. We soon figure out that The Quantum Thief is going to be a poise and pantomime tale, full of saltimbanco turns, what students of Elizabethan architecture call a prodigy house: a kind of memory theatre that encodes for display the culture of its owner (Rajaniemi namechecks the concept of the memory theatre more than once as we proceed), an edifice (or story shape) in which characters and plot and mise en scene make up a nigh-unstoryable mnemonic: for the world we are invited to memorize cannot be contained in the mnemonics that trigger our imagination, any more than the Boojum can be contained in its McGuffins: The Quantum Thief looks like the first volume of a series. It also looks as though it may be great fun (this turns out to be the case). But synopsis is more or less impossible.
The good ship Perhonen has rescued Jean le Flambeur and Mieli from the Dilemma Prison, which is a kind of space-habitat, a recursive entity created by the Sobornost (I think), the Sobornost being a kind of group mind, an "upload collective that rules the Inner Solar System," "sobornost" being Russian for something like the joining of the human family into one spiritual community: but this is all we are really told, or really need to know: the Sobornost and the vasilev, who/which are its utterands or avatars or exponents, serve here, as I suggested a moment ago, as mnemonics figuring the walls of passage: they are what one might also call structurands: background terms that impart a verb-like nimbus to backstory or nonstory or proleptic story-ort. Once mentioned, they are assumed. The Quantum Thief is very full of this sort of play—far more, and far more competently, than similar fingerpaintings on the wall of my own SF novel, a tale called Appleseed which, when I wrote it, I thought was as full of structurands as you could get: I was wrong: we digress. We should at least try to get Jean through this buzz of circumbendibus into his next prison, the planet Mars that Perhonen lands him on, or more precisely a moving city on Mars, stunningly well described, but which is called Oubliette.
And I begin to realize that the memory theatre is triggering our recognition of structurands through language games. Sobornost is Russian. Ivan Vasil'ev was an obscure Russian thinker who talked about Sobornost. Perhonen is Finnish for butterfly (Rajaniemi is of course Finnish, though he has lived in Scotland for the past seven years: his English is not infallibly idiomatic, but I'm reading "uncorrected manuscript proof" here, and most of the small uneasinesses are easily fixable, and may have been), a good name for a spaceship that does intricately balletic flying stuff at will. But Oubliette—the grippingly envisioned, thrivingly complex city where we spend most of the rest of The Quantum Thief—is a French word for a particular kind of prison, specifically a dungeon whose only access is through a hole in the ceiling. Surely this is a joke (and surely the inhabitants of Oubliette know they inhabit a joke that is on them): and surely we are supposed to look the word up if we don't know it: but surely it is more than merely structurandal: surely we are meant to understand that just as Jean de Flambeur—a name taken, we guess uncertainly, from one of Jean-Pierre Melville's best films, Bob le Flambeur (1956)—is a prison-self enclosing a prison-self enclosing something else way inside, so likewise the novel that houses him is a prison inside a prison that must be broken out of before the peta peta peta Boojum babble of the universe can inundate us.
But we have a ways to go before light shines in. The sense that one is skimming through a cat's cradle of realities far more layered and dense than any one novel can really cope with—which is another way of describing a memory theatre—is only sharpened as we encounter further entities, agglutinations, artifacts, weapons, armoured apps, most of which receive no explanation beyond what one might gain from translating Rajaniemi's terms for them into English: that is, memorizing them. Every name on the wall is a hook. The zoku are, for instance, a highly hierarchic, hermetic, multivalent but very tight family or tribe; zoku is Japanese for exactly that. Gogols seem to be clones and/or avatars, partial iterations of original source humans or other entities; the reference here is presumably to Nikolai Gogol's only novel, Dead Souls (1841).
Gevulot, the name of a kibbutz in Israel, is on the other hand mysteriously (to me*) chosen as the name for a complexly but grippingly described form of perception management, a form of privacy control for a world (like ours) intensely trawled for information. Individual citizens of Oubliette live within veils or clouds called gevulot, a computer-governed information-protective interface whose resistance and visual thickness and shape vary constantly according to time and place and function and desire, reacting specifically to whom a citizen might be communicating with, who should be visible to whom, or invisible, etc., etc. It is a brilliant concept, and—unlike some of Rajaniemi's other offerings—grows more and more convincing and integral to story as the novel progresses. Though the effect is very different, it inhabits the same universe of discourse as the undescribed perception control that ordonnates the interweaving of the two cities in China Miéville's The City & the City (2009).
The citizens of Oubliette are also distinguished from other races and groups and mentates in the novel by the fact that they live very literally under the governance of Time; after citizens have expended their allotment, according to the Watch each wears, they are turned off as citizens and become Quiets, which is very similar to dying. But it is not really death. According to the needs of the city computer, the mind or some partial render of the mind of a Time-exhausted citizen will be housed in the prison of some mechanical device or breathing thing or cyborgish combo of the two, whose function it is to dogsbody the running of Oubliette. The movement of the city itself is effected by Giant Quiets, like elephants under Discworld, who make the earth tremble as they pace. Like Thomas M. Disch's Quinquennial Bondage—a scheme aired in "Pyramids for Minnesota: A Serious Proposal" (1974), where he suggested that every four years of freedom for an adult citizen should be followed by a year of dutiful slavery to keep the world running—the Oubliette scheme makes the Vermilion Sands atmosphere its gevulot-veiled inhabitants habitually bathe in far more plausible, as there is always someone minding the shop; nor is bondage permanent: the Quiet become quick again after they have done their stint.
In the end, it may not matter how much one actually "gets" out of any single predatory slamdunk eyekick—in any online render of this tale, each eyekick, every mnemonic, would of course take the form of a link—in Rajaniemi's memory theatre, though their excellent profusion increasingly, as one continues to read, gives joy. There is something of a story, all the same. The Quantum Thief is undated, but there are sufficient markers to make it clear that a long time has passed since now. There are two stories, which dovetail into one family romance climax: Jean is on a quest for the McGuffin keys to the kingdom of his earlier self (he may be an Archon, or a Founder, or something even more Primal); a young detective tracks noirishly through the warp and woof of Oubliette, and finds his Ma, etc. A Planetary Romance tale interweaves through both of the above, a bit stiff-kneed, more like Garrett P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898) than Edgar Rice Burroughs. Oubliette is almost destroyed, but not quite. Jean is sort of retro-uplifted into Something Higher: wait for the next instalment. Not every moment of the novel is habitable; but tant pis, Rajaniemi's brilliant first novel is more device than story, a superb exercise in icon placement, as we've suggested already.
NB: like many SF novels set in the Never Land of the post near-future future, The Quantum Thief works like a dream. Whenever there's something that needs to be true here, there's a name for it—I've not mentioned smartmatter yet, or 'blinks, or the pellegrini (she's cool), or tzaddiks, or phoboi, or qupting—and anything that can be called by name is theatricalized into the memory drama. Occasionally a whiff of doubletalk physics may pucker the nostrils, but Rajaniemi, who is a physicist, never means a word of it, as physics. Stories like this are sometimes called Hard SF, but if that term means anything at all—if it is to be more than shorthand for Stories With Bipolar Protagonists—it should mean something about the testing of propositions. But The Quantum Thief, like so much of the best space opera of this century, is a prodigy house, where propositions are instant heritage, and arguments are eyeclick. What I tell you three times is true.
I do think there may be a real Near Future for gevulot, though.
SHORT NOTE: Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is 63 and has never published a book in English until now. A Life on Paper: Selected Stories, brilliantly translated by Edward Gauvin, opens the door at last. Nothing in the volume much resembles SF, many of the tales included here ostensibly lack any fantastic element: but this matters not at all. Châteaureynaud's characteristic tone of voice is deadpan, unsurprised, almost anecdotal. Unsettlingly, nothing remarkable is remarked upon, as though words that illuminate deep shadow do no more than light our way to the end of the perfect tale. In his blurb, John Crowley evokes Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Nathanael West, Aimee Bender. I'd add Robert Coover when he's not spanking or out West; and maybe a few others, like the hugely undervalued Macdonald Harris when he lets his stays out. And Thomas Ligotti, especially when he's channelling Lovecraft as a describer of the given world. And some passages in Michal Ajvaz when movement occurs. But none of these writers has quite the air of transparency that makes the stories assembled in A Life on Paper seem untold—until you look again, and realize that a deep magic has opened you. Nothing matters in this book unless it has been told, everything is told. Open this book.
* Abigail Nussbaum informs us that before and after Gevulot was a proper noun, its common usage has meant borders or boundaries. Which makes good sense given how the term is used in the novel.