The Quantum Thief. Note that this post contains ALL THE SPOILERS! It’s written for the benefit of my book club who hadn’t read The Fractal Prince yet, but it turns out that even this synopsis doesn’t help much, and one really should read the book itself. Might serve as handy reminder for people who’ve gone a few years between books though?
Novel starts with Jean le Flambeur in the Dilemma Prison, a virtual realm. It’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma set up with thousands of copies of himself, in the theory that eventually he’ll turn into a good person after enough iterations. He encounters the monster of the Dilemma Prison, the All-Defector, who convinces you into cooperating and then defects anyway. Meili, the winged lady, has hacked into the Prison with the aid of Pelegrinni, one of the Sobornost. She grabs Jean and breaks out.
Note: “grabs Jean” means copying one instance of him. “Breaks out” means downloading that consciousness into a robot body provided by Pelegrinni. Thousands of other copies of him are simply left behind to continue being tortured/rehabilitated.
Note: the Sobornost are 8(?) people. Each one uploaded their consciousness to silicon and created millions (billions?) of copies of themselves, all with slight alterations in order to be better as specific tasks, and each one works as basically a single Large, Distributed Person. But they often break off branches of themselves to go do other tasks. Pelegrinni is one of these people, and she broke off a copy to go with Meili to free Jean and get him to steal something for her.
subNote: The 8 Sobornost minds have an uneasy truce among them, but often clash. They’ve also taken over much of the inner systems. Mars and Earth are both reduced to a single city, I’m not sure Venus exists anymore. All other matter is being converted to computronium.
The jailors, known as “Archons”, notice they’ve lost a copy of Jean. One comes after him, a sliver of smartmatter that penetrates their ship and begins to convert it into another Dilemma Prison. Jean defeats it by “swallowing” it, creating a false virtual world within his robot body’s mental computer that tricks the Archon into thinking it is still in the real world, and has succeeded in re-capturing Jean, and is now happily torturing/rehabilitating him in a new Dilemma Prison.
This Jean-copy is missing a lot of memories that the original Jean had. He can’t steal anything for Pelegrinni until he becomes himself again. Our Jean travels to the Oubliette, the city on Mars, where the entire population’s memories are stored permanently in the city internet, and are uploaded as they’re created in real time. These memories are VERY tightly guarded behind unbreakable encryption, so you can only share memories with people if you have their consent. It’s an intensely private society. But with the right tools and lies you can get people’s encryption keys and hack into their stored memories. The original Jean used to live in the Oubliette. Our Jean is going there to steal back his memories.
On Mars we learn that nearly all human minds have been converted into “gogols.” These are basically mind-slaves. They are uploaded humans that have been trained in specific computational tasks that are economically useful (math, piloting, hacking, surgery, infiltration, accounting, engineering, whatever). They have been stripped of most human drives, and so want only to perform their function. The Sobornost, for undisclosed reasons, want a copy of every human mind in existence under their control. They pay pirates to copy the minds on Mars and send them to Sobornost stations. The people of Mars obviously find this repugnant, they do not want copies of themselves mutilated and enslaved. Because who wants to wake up tomorrow and find out they’re under the complete control of a callous god that will use you as a tool for eternity without rest? But since the people on Mars are basically standard humans with some upgrades, they would be wiped out by the vastly technologically-superior Sobornost in a matter of weeks. So they’ve formed an alliance with the Zoku.
On Mars we meet a colony of the Zoku. They’re the flipside of the Sobornost. They are large numbers of humans who have linked their minds together via quantum-entanglement, using small devices that look like gems. Thus they are called “Zoku gems.” This makes them sorta a single entity, the same way the Sobornost are a single entity, but they are comprised of many different humans working together, rather than a single human copied and recreated millions of times. The Zoku have been at war with the Sobornost for a long, long time (called “The Protocol War”). Jupiter was destroyed during the war, creating an event known as “The Spike” when the solar system was flooded with radiation from its fiery disintegration. The Zoku have been losing lately, which was why they teamed up with the humans on Mars. The little extra firepower has let them hold a draw for a while.
Lots of cool shit happens on Mars, Meili and Jean save each others lives several times and bond (sorta), and their ship (“Perhonen”) is sarcastic and loyal and awesome. Murders and explosions and such!
In the end we learn that the original Jean had a rich life on Mars with many friends, who he eventually abandoned when he disappeared. Our Jean, in the course of trying to steal back the memories left here, discovers that the original Jean never actually left Mars. He has hidden himself here, deleting himself from everyone else’s memories and sight when he gained root access to the memory-cloud of Mars. He alters people’s memories and minds at will in order to rule Mars from the shadows. The two Jeans confront each other in an absolutely epic showdown. In the end our Jean unleashes the Archon he trapped within himself. The Archon creates a new Dilemma Prison that traps the original Jean within in it. Now that it has a Jean it is happy. Our Jean escapes. Unfortunately the Dilemma Prison also ate all the memories that our Jean came here to find, so he never gets them at all. He has failed. The one thing he manages to steal as he leaves is a small cube.
The cube is a quantum computer. Locked within it is a god – a copy of the original mind of one of the 8 Sobornost founders.
Also of note: in the climax the main supporting character – Mieli – gives Pelegrinni a copy of her mind to do with as she wishes. Copy, alter, replicate a thousand times, resurrect her if she dies, whatever. This is in exchange for Pelegrinni swooping in to save Jean’s life at a crucial moment. This causes Mieli much distress, since before this she had been unique and un-copied.
In the epilogue we discover that Matjek Chen is the most powerful Sobornost right now, and is moving to consume or destroy the others. Pelegrinni has formed an alliance with him, but is secretly only out for herself. She plans to use Jean to steal something (we still don’t know what) from Matjek—an artifact that could change the course of their civil war. We also learn that when Jean was broken out of the Dilemma Prison at the very beginning, the All-Defector broke out as well, and is loose somewhere. Finally, Pelegrinni warns Matjek that Jean is coming for him, so Matjek creates a Hunter to track down Jean and eliminate him. Pelegrinni tells this Hunter where to find Jean, whispering his name and location to it. The hunt is on!