Marginalia

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.

5 thoughts on “Marginalia”

  1. Without loading up the book again, the first that pops to mind is his short line about “the metabolism of cities”. Even before reading the book, I was planning to do a post linking Andrew’s recent post about city metaphors in literature with the discovery of scale-free networks in animal metabolism. I think this book is the first place I’ve ever seen someone make the link so explicitly and matter-of-fact (and of course, it foreshadows what happens later in the book).

  2. OK, here are some more:

    On Paul’s attitude:

    Hell no. There is always a way out. You are never in a prison unless you think you are.

    On the Archon’s purpose:

    That’s why its task is to turn this matter into another Prison, to increase the purity of the Universe.

    On getting surprises from your past:

    Would the old me have done that? Stored secrets in the exomemory of an Oubliette identity? It chills me to realise that I have no idea.

    Not profound, but kind of poignant

    Before, there was always a sense of safety, that someone always knew where he was

    This was a key quote to a very provocative section:

    ‘For what it’s worth, your Paul had nothing to do with this.’ ‘I don’t believe you,’ Gilbertine says. ‘It’s not all about memory. A part of you is Paul, no matter who you think you are, no matter what you have done to your brain, no matter if he was just a mask you wore.

    Nice juxtaposition:

    The freedom we always have left,’ she says, ‘is the freedom to leave. I’m out. I was born here. I’m staying.

    On the perfect hunter:

    He gives it enough cognitive rights to be intelligent, but not enough to have latency

  3. When I first read this post, I got critical.

    I thought it was a given that most people read novels not to be challenged or to think but to be entertained by “novel” things.

    Do you really expect an audience (for the most part never taught to value critical thinking or consistency), would want to raise their level of sophistication without the skills or tools or experiences needed?

    There is an unfortunate ratio that authors have always had to contend with. Authors put in effort by the number of weeks and months. Readers put in effort by the number of hours. But still, is it not the writer’s responsibility? If he wants to change the minds of his audience, how many demands can he really expect to put on the audience? The author has to realize how little “authority” he has on his own work now.

    But then Valicella’s post hit me as a real ouch. “Discipline” has been slapping me in the face lately.

  4. @Andrew – You raise a good point. I’ve started reading fiction books like this before bed specifically because they don’t require too much mental stimulation. It’s easier to get to sleep when the reading material isn’t too demanding.

    Valicella’s criticism is on firmer ground than mine, because people shouldn’t be signing up for a challenging course unless they expect to be challenged. But “Quantum Thief” still seemed jarring to me, since people share their highlights as a way of signalling something to other people, and those highlights seemed completely incongruous with the sort of signals that someone would want to be sending by revealing that he was reading the book in the first place.

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