Thursday 23 August 2018

Künsken has a talent for imagining new unfreedoms

On one level, The Quantum Magician is a straightforward heist novel that might be compared to an
(Image via Goodreads)
Ocean’s Eight set in space.

But there’s far more going on under the hood of this well-engineered machine than that reductive description conveys. It is a novel about self-identity, about colonialism, about being handcuffed by our own instincts, and about the subversion of human freedom.

Derek Künsken’s debut introduces the reader to con-man protagonist Belisarius, who gathers up a rag-tag group of his former associates to pull a scheme worth billions.

These associates include his childhood love, his dying mentor, an outcast from the Puppet society, a zany demolitions expert, and an AI that thinks it’s the reincarnation of a Catholic saint. To be fair, some of these characters seem like they’re straight from central casting, but for the most part their relationships and dialogue are engaging and enjoyable.

Belisarius’ scheme, which involves helping a small fleet of warships successfully pass through a heavily fortified transport hub, is somewhat grandiose, but it provides Künsken some interesting chances to comment on colonialism and economic justice.

The planning, execution, twists and turns of the heist are interesting enough to make the book worth your time. But it’s the interplay between human and transhuman motivations that elevates The Quantum Magician.

Central to what makes the book so enjoyable is the character of Belisarius, the Homo Quantus.
It would be easy to imagine a
young Michael Cane as
(Image via Mirror.Co.Uk) 

Genetically engineered as part of a project to create a human capable of understanding quantum mechanics, he is able to enter various trance-like states in which he redirects portions of his brain that are usually dedicated to social skills or motor functions.

He is, however, a reject from the genetic engineering project, incomplete and unable to fulfill his instinctive need to understand. To distract himself from his inabilities, he focuses his prodigious intellect on understanding human motivations and working as a con artist.

It is a difficult task for those of us who have standard-issue brains to write believably about the thought processes of those who are neuro-atypical, but Künsken pulls it off admirably. Some of the best portions of the book are those in which we get a window into how Belisarius’ brain is constantly churning with mathematics, a need to count items, and to grind away at even minor quandaries.

One of the other real highlights of the book are when Künsken uses the plot and the setting to take readers on a tour of a variety of ways that genetic engineering might lead humanity on a road to unfreedom: the engineering of people like Belisarius whose instinct for curiosity is so tweaked as to be inescapable; the creation of benthic monstrosities Homo Eridanus that cannot escape the task that they were designed to do; and finally, the citizens of the Free City of Puppets.

Two hundred years prior to the events of the novel, The Puppets were designed to be slaves. Genetic engineers boosted their ability to feel religious fervor, and coded them to worship a breed of master humans. By the time that The Quantum Magician takes place, the society of the Puppets has devolved into something strange and awful.

Although they aren’t front-and-centre, the particular form of unfreedom embodied by the Puppets is
Derek Künsken offers new ideas about
how freedom could be subverted.
(Image via  
affecting, viscerally repugnant, and creepy.

More than anything else, it’s the subplots about the Puppets that might place The Quantum Magician into a grand tradition of dystopic science fiction novels that warn about the subversion of human rights. The work I was reminded of most often when reading this book was Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness In The Sky, and the particular unfreedom embodied by Emergent focus.

Science fiction is often at its best when imagining new forms of tyranny. It is clear that Künsken has a talent for imagining oppressions. On the strength of that alone, The Quantum Magician is well worth picking up, and may end up on some of our nominating ballots.

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