I recently read “The Quantum Thief“, by Hannu Rajaniemi, based on the recommendation of a friend. It was truly delightful. In just the first chapter, the author adapts ideas from at least 5 projects from the Santa Fe Institute, and there are references to cutting edge math, science, economics and philosophy topics on almost every page. The references are not gratuitous, either; Rajaniemi imaginatively extends the concepts in ways that I’ve sometimes thought of when reading on the topics, and has a number of creative spins that were completely new to me.
Many of the technical references will be lost on most readers, since the book doesn’t have footnotes, and not everyone is obsessed with complexity theory and deception. But it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless. Even his treatment of the romantic relationships in the story was more rich and layered than the typical sci-fi, suggesting that the author has lived some life.
I read the book on my Kindle, highlighting passages that were particularly thought-provoking and adding notes. The Kindle has a feature that shows you passages that a large number of other users have highlighted. My suspicions about the book being above most readers’ heads were strengthened when I saw the passage in the book that has received the most highlights so far. The passage is “Hell is where all the interesting people are”, spoken by the protagonist in a Han Solo moment.
I was flabbergasted. Now, when someone tells me that he loved the book, I’ll be wondering “Are you one of the people who thought that ‘Hell is where all the interesting people are’ is the most profound line?”. It’s mildly clever, but has been better said by Friedrich Nietszche, Oscar Wilde, and many poets and songwriters since. Apparently the set of people who read “The Quantum Thief” on Kindle do not intersect with the set of people who are well-read. The other popular highlights were equally depressing; making me suspect that many people read the book purely to signal affiliation with a specific subculture.
I wonder if Rajaniemi is depressed when he sees which parts of his story appeal to the reader. The book is full of brilliantly quotable lines and meaty topics that could engage further discussion. It has got to be depressing to put so much work into such an imaginatively constructed set of problems and have people latch onto trite ancillary phrases.
It seems that Bill Vallicella often encounters the same. The few times that I’ve read second-hand academic books, I’ve found myself agitatedly wishing I could track down the previous owner to explain how he completely missed the point in a marginal note. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like second-hand books, and I’m afraid that Amazon’s “shared highlights” suffers from the same defect.