Original Content: An Interview with Hannu Rajaniemi

Algorithms Alight

An Interview with Hannu Rajaniemi

By Preston Grassmann


PG: From the beginning of The Quantum Thief, it’s clear that the reader is in the deep end of the SF pool, where the concepts and inventions are initially free of context. The reader, not unlike the detective in the novel, must use inference to figure out how the various parts fit together. For me, this was part of the pleasure of reading the TQT. Was this estrangement of context intentional on your part?

HR: At least in part, yes. As you say, I wanted to avoid infodumps and give the reader the opportunity to gradually piece the various concepts together. With the wisdom of hindsight, the opening of the novel is not particularly gentle in this respect — some readers seem to find it off-putting — but quite a few people seem to be willing to play the game. Many readers have said that the critical mass of understanding is achieved around page 100…

PG: There’s a high level of complexity here, in terms of plot-lines and the conceptual framework. One imagines it must’ve taken a lot of planning and preparation. What was the process of creation? Did you start with pages of notes?

HR: I do make a lot of notes and I find it necessary to spend quite a long time thinking before actually writing anything. One of my literary heroes, the Finnish writer Mika Waltari, once said that one should keep thinking until one cannot hold the story in any longer, until it forces itself out: that is certainly true for me. I wrote the bulk of the actual text of TQT in about two months, but it took about two years of thinking and daydreaming to get to that point.

So, planning is good and necessary, but the *real* story only emerges through writing, and what works in my imagination does not necessarily work on paper. And being surprised by your characters and the story is a large part of the joy of doing it, of course.

PG: You invite a variety of readings – radical SF, a cat-and-mouse mystery, a play on consensual reality and history. Who do you see as your ideal reader?

HR: One guiding principle behind TQT was to write a book I wanted to read myself… but having said that, I’ve had very nice feedback from both hardcore SF fans and people who have never picked up a science fiction novel in their lives. So I’d say anyone who enjoys mysteries and adventure, is willing to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride.

PG: One of the most brilliant conceits of The Quantum Thief is how you’re able to advance a classic a mystery story in a world of ubiquitous information technology. Was it a challenge to work this out in post-singularity world?

HR: That was the challenge or the contradiction (always good for any creative process) that drove both the story and the worldbuilding. At first I had a vague idea about wanting to write a story about a gentleman thief in a post-singularity setting. That immediately begged the question of what is actually worthwhile stealing in a world without material scarcity, where everything can be copied. The answer to that turned out to be quantum information. A gentleman thief also needs an adversary, a detective: but being a detective in a world with ubiquitous computing and sensing where everything is recorded would be meaningless. So that led to the idea of the Oubliette, a society where privacy and control of personal information is the most fundamental value of all.

PG: You introduce a variety of original high-concept SF ideas, such as q-dots, weaponized Bose-Einstein condensates, and non-sequential dorsal streams. Has your background in the sciences (Ph.d in mathematics) played an important role in your writing?

HR: To some extent, although I shamelessly handwave or bluff a lot of things that aren’t mathematics or physics (and a lot of things that are). TQT is often described as hard SF, but I’m not really trying to write hard SF in the vein of Egan or Benford: I don’t work out the equations as I go. For me, the more important consequence of having a scientific background is a degree of speculative rigour: trying hard to work out the consequences of the assumptions one begins with.

PG: Among the many original concepts introduced in your novel, you have a technology called gevulot, which is a computer governed veil used for privacy control. It becomes an integral part of the plot, as the story develops. Did such ideas occur to you in the writing process, or were they worked out in advance?

HR: Gevulot was always meant to be a key plot element, but how the characters ended up using it and how it all played out very much emerged during the writing. At least for me, it’s hard to “see” how it all fits together until you put yourself inside the characters’ heads and really immerse yourself in what is going on.

PG: Can you tell us about your writing process?

HR: It’s sort of organic. I start with little post-it notes: one idea per post-it. I accumulate them for a while (sometimes weeks or months) and then cluster them on sheets of paper or notebooks, trying to see patterns. This can include ideas for scenes, characters, little background details, worldbuilding elements and so on. After a while, story shapes emerge and the sticky clusters are distilled into slightly more concrete notes, mind maps and diagrams. With the TQT sequel I’m working on at the moment, I’ve used 6”x4” index cards and covered my living room floor in them for a couple of weeks at one point.

When the story wants to get out, I write a first draft of each chapter (longhand), type it up and edit it to death with a red pen. Analog tools work well for me because they are sort of calming and eliminate distractions; in the necessarily digital rewriting stage I find it necessary to turn to a little Mac app called Freedom, which shuts off your Internet connection for a prescribed amount of time…

PG: Who are some of the writers that you think that people should be paying attention to in the field? Who are your greatest influences?

HR: I’m not necessarily up to speed on who the rising stars of the genre are at the moment, but smy guess would be that (for example) Jetse de Vries’s lovely anthology *Shine* contains quite a few names to watch.

Well-known writers I admire include Ian McDonald, Roger Zelazny, Michael Chabon and Kelly Link. In terms of influences, I’ve probably been shaped more by my interaction with the members of my writers’ group Writers’ Bloc than anyone else.

PG: Can you tell us anything about current projects?

HR: I’m working on the still-unnamed sequel to The Quantum Thief. It’s a bit early to say too much about it, but it will reveal more about the Sobornost (a sinister totalitarian upload collective), Jean and Mieli’s past and various other secrets.

In terms of structure, I’m trying to do something a little bit different than with the first book, but we’ll see how it turns out…


First published in Bull Spec Magazine.


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