The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken
Derek Künsken’s The Quantum Magician (2018) is kind of like one of those summer movies where if where you don’t think too much about what is happening, and aren’t looking for deep, moving character studies, you’re more than perfectly happy to glide along the surface and enjoy the ride as things go boom. And though, like a number of those same movies, The Quantum Magician goes on a bit too long, for the most part I happily skated through. And yes, things did go boom.
We’re set centuries in the future when humanity has colonized the stars thanks to a set of stable wormholes left behind by a long-dead civilization. These gates are fiercely, jealously controlled by a small number of powerful, dominating groups such as the Congregate and the Anglo-Spanish banks. What kickstarts the action is when one “client” culture, the Sub-Saharan Union, wants to smuggle a small fleet of ultra-powerful, uber-advanced ships through a wormhole to free themselves from the Congregate and finally “own their world.” To that end, they hire Danny Ocean, who puts together a team that includes Brad Pitt, Matt Damon …
OK, I kid. But just a little. They hire Belisarius Arjona, one of the best con artists in the universe and a “Homo quantus” — a bio-engineered sub-species that can deal with the data flood/strange math/multiple dimensions, etc. of the quantum world. The Anglo-Spanish Banks run the HQ project in hopes of profiting off of their abilities, but so far “the very nature of quantum perceptions created a species inclined to contemplating abstract interacting possibilities … mired in arcane ideas rather than concluding anything of immediate benefit.” In other words, nearly all hang out at The Garret, their asteroid home, and ponder deep thoughts by entering one of two removed states (akin to the autism spectrum): Savant and Fugue.
Belisarius’ design, though, is a little off, and entering the Fugue is dangerous for him. He also is discontented over the idea that he and the others like him have been “programmed.” So he left their base known as The Garret and for years has been feeding his mind, genetically hard-wired to seek knowledge, by running complicated cons. For this one, he puts together a greatest hits team, including “an inside man, a demolitions expert, a navigator, an unparalleled electronics wizard, a geneticist, an exotic deep diver, and an experienced con man.”
One of those is another quantus, Cassandra, whom he once had a relationship with and still has feelings for. Two other members belong to two more engineered sub-species. One, Stills, is a Homo Eridanus or “Mongrel,” specially designed to live in the deep ocean of their world and having “no human features at all [with] whale-like skin cover[ing] layers of insulating fat,” retractable arms, thick tails, and “wide fish mouths.” The other, Gates-15, is a Puppet, a diminutive race engineered by their creators, the Numen, to worship them as gods, responding to Numen pheromones. The Puppets overthrew the Numen, but still live by their nature, holding their gods in horrific captivity so as to protect and serve them. The other members include an AI who thinks he is the reincarnation of St. Matthew, a crazy woman who blows things up for “a hobby,” and Bel’s old mentor, now dying of an incurable disease.
Assembling the team takes up roughly the first third of The Quantum Magician. The middle third involves explaining the con, everyone’s roles in it, and then setting the plans into motion. Also included in this section is a human-AI hybrid who works for the Congregate, and who has figured out someone is planning something fishy. The final third of the book involves the inevitable trio of elements one always finds in a heist plot: the betrayal, the con-within-the-con, and the “plans go all to shit” moment.
The world-building can be richly original. I loved the three sub-species, and each is explored in some depth (we even get an excerpt of an academic text), though some of the Puppet moments are more than a little uncomfortable with their exploration of religious ecstasy/sadism/masochism and torture. And if the “inflaton drive” that powers the new ships is a bit hand-wavey, it’s no less cool. The politics is also intriguing just given the names of the factions and the mix of human, sub-species human, transhuman, and AI, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit more about the make-up/history of this universe.
On the other hand, there’s also a strange flatness to some of the setting and characterization, especially in comparison to some of the truly startling creations. Casinos still exist, people still play poker, food and drink don’t seem any different, prisons don’t seem a whole lot different, etc. And on an individual level, the characters are less interesting, mostly falling into the usual types one sees in these sorts of things: the crazy one, the fearful one, the foul-mouthed one, etc. That’s not to say some aren’t quite entertaining in their roles, but they don’t come across as more than just types for the most part. The exception is Bel, whose desire to find meaning in his life and to make his disparate selves whole is compelling. The prose mostly falls into the flat category as well, adequate enough to carry the story, but nothing in the language will startle you or make you linger over a passage. A lot of times Künsken reaches for the well-worn word in any given context and will also repeat a handful of words.
The plot is solid and it’s here one really has to avoid thinking too much about things. Künsken throws around a lot of tech-talk, which is all well and good and gets us through heist questions such as “how is the thing of value guarded” and “how can our thieves overcome the guarding mechanism.” But really, it’s hard to pull off a true heist in a future of unrecognizable technology. When people do it in our world, the fun comes because we fully understand the many obstacles and while we wouldn’t have thought of them ourselves, we fully understand the solutions our “heroes” come up with to evade said obstacles. Here, we’re meant to believe it’s hard to do thanks to the dialogue about the protections and solutions, but it mostly just involves a lot of techno-babble that doesn’t quite seem earned. You need to get around a command system? Just introduce a virus. How? Use these carbon nano-tubes implanted into the fingers that are wholly untraceable. Why are they untraceable and how do the connect and transmit a virus? Technology! There just isn’t the satisfaction we get from the clever methods of an Oceans 11 or The Sting where we get what they did after they did it. I’m not saying Künsken is “cheating” here; he’s just using the tools of the world he’s created. But it does feel a bit like cheating, which dilutes the impact.
All that said, as noted at the start, if you can ignore those sorts of things and aren’t looking for an in-depth character-based story but one that moves apace, throws in some humor, offers up some plot twists, and blows a bunch of stuff up, and then tosses in a bit more substantive thematic moments, then The Quantum Magician will certainly satisfy that itch.