It isn’t every day that a brand new author lands a three-book, undisclosed five-figure sum writing deal on the back of a single chapter. But then again, it isn’t every day that you read a first novel like The Quantum Thief by Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi. And the response to his debut, futuristic cyberpunk heist novel has been phenomenal, with a wave of critical praise drawing Rajaniemi comparisons to the likes of Greg Egan, Charlie Stross and Richard Morgan. And all before the book has even made its way into the hands of an expectant public.
But while the Finnish born PhD is grateful for the appreciation his book has received, he isn’t quite ready to see himself as the ‘fresh new voice’ of sci-fi. “I’m probably still not in a place where I can see myself as such; I personally feel I’m still learning the craft,” he says demurely. But talking to him about his rapid career, it’s quickly apparent he’s no stranger to being compared to other sci-fi rising stars, having first seriously begun writing in 2002 while studying his PhD as part of writing group called Writers Bloc – which includes authors Charles Stross and Alan Campbell. “It is, and always has been a place with quite a harsh level of criticism,” he says. “But in a healthy and professional way, of course, so it was a good group of people and environment in which to develop.” And being able to approach writing as more of a technical exercise because he was doing it in a second language was just as important. “There wasn’t such a tremendous emotional connection to things; I could step back and look at it a little more distantly, making it somehow easier trying to learn the basics of plotting, character and dialogue. I think it was Nabokov,” he says, referring to the polyglot Russian author of Lolita, “who described writing in another language as this ‘new set of toys you can play with’, so I think it was very much like that. Not that I’m comparing myself to Nabokov.”
His early writing tenure included several attention-garnering short stories, including ‘Shibuya No Love’ in 2003, but it was his inclusion in Nova Scotia (a collection of Scottish speculative fiction) with ‘Deus Ex Homine’ that led to his meeting with literary agent John Jarrold in 2005. An overzealous spam filter would delay their collaboration until 2008, when Jarrold asked if he had any novel ideas. Like most writers, Rajaniemi had spent three years or so tinkering with a novel that he returned to.
At the time, Rajaniemi was finishing his PhD and co-founding Think Tank Maths, a consultancy company that works with organisations like the Ministry of Defence, and writing had been put on the back burner. He returned to it with gusto, but found it wasn’t easy. “I kept pounding my head on an old manuscript for a while and then got fed up with it.” It prompted him to take an old idea “out of a drawer”, which became the first written chapter of The Quantum Thief, which Jarrold presented to publisher Simon Spanton of Gollancz as the basis of his three-book deal.
“Of course getting the book deal was a little intimidating at first,” he admits. “I think one response to getting the book deal was to come up with an outline that had every single idea I could cram into it, because I wanted to be worthy of what had happened.” The solution was to expand the outline into three parts, the first of which became The Quantum Thief.
There are certainly a great number of layers in The Quantum Thief, but they make sense after talking about Rajaniemi’s sci-fi inspirations. “I had a period before I discovered Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and the classic sci-fi writers,” he tells us, “where I read a lot of Victorian fiction. People like Jules Verne, HG Wells and then detective stories like Sherlock Holmes and especially Maurice Leblanc, whose stories have a very direct influence on The Quantum Thief.”
Some of those writers and his own work as a scientist strongly influenced his view of the role of the genre – which he believes is changing. “What’s happening at the moment is that we’re living in a period of absolutely incredible rapid technological change, so I think it’s hard for a sci-fi writer these days to be a futurist in the way that people like Arthur C Clarke perhaps were, because the horizon of technological change is so close, however the techniques of the craft are still valid.”
Another function of sci-fi, he believes, is to comment on the past, not by predicting the future, but showing alternate possible futures or reflecting upon the present as a kind of funhouse mirror – taking trends, and ideas from the present day and then magnifying to the extreme or following to its logical conclusion. It’s an approach, he points out, that has been used by writers like William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, who are treating the past using the same tools sci-fi normally applies to the future to create alternate pasts or presents.
“One thing I tried in Quantum Thief along those lines was with the Oubliette – expanding the idea that we live in an environment where we are generating enormous amounts of data that can be collected and possibly used for nefarious purpose, so could there be a society where privacy was the centrepiece of technological design?”
Talking to Rajaniemi, it’s clear The Quantum Thief represents only a fraction of ideas he wants to expand upon. “I’m currently working on the second novel, which is a continuation of the first, but could be read independently.” It’s currently untitled, but a strong story focus will be on the Sobornost, a Stalinist transhuman upload collective, which featured briefly in the first book, as well as the returning Quantum Thief protagonists Jean le Flambeur and Mieli.
The Quantum Thief is out now through Gollancz. Read our review here.