The Quantum Magician is the debut sci-fi novel from Derek Künsken. It’s a book nominally about a heist and a con, moving some impossibly precious things from one place to another without interacting with the intervening authorities. But it’s also a story about humanity and transhumanism; about the way people are willing to change themselves or others to adapt to an environment, and about the costs that are born out of that decision. It’s about old friendships and new alliances – the trust you can put into those who have never betrayed you, and in those who have hurt you before. It’s a human story – well, mostly. One about people, the way they interact with each other, what they’re willing to do, and what (or who) they’re willing to compromise to reach their goals. But there’s also a sweeping array of space battles, and a sprawling universe out there to explore between warhead splashes.
Belisarius is the centre of the story – part of a new species of human, one able to make astounding leaps of intellectual analysis by stepping away from their individuality. Belisarius is charming, thoughtful, and clearly off the map of standard humanity. He struggles with his own identity, with the sense of being himself. At the same time, he’s willing to disperse his consciousness for focus, to obviate the self for the sake of more mundane goals. There are some allusions to engineered individuals being focused on the broader concepts of the universe, unwilling to engage with the minutiae, with individuals who work within a cash economy and are willing to discourage disagreement through superior firepower. Belisarius isn’t one of these – he ties up to reality, and seems largely willing to accept its existence, despite his priorities being elsewhere. Some od that is just a desire to keep his mind engaged, to escape the cosmic unutterables of the universe and get down and dirty with the human. Bel is an intriguing creature, one struggling against a genetically engrained purpose. They are at once an endorsement of the individuality of consciousness, and a triumph, or warning, of the results of engineering.
Belisarius, delightful as they are, complex as they are, struggling, human as they are, is not the only individual on the page. There are some truly startling post-Sapiens individuals. These include an individual from the deep pressure divers – built to populate a liquid pressure environment far higher than normal, and survive, never comfortable, but unable to return to the world outside – and the Puppets. The puppets are a masterpiece. A populace created to experience awe under pheremonal cues, a subservient species of man, They overthrew their masters, not in revulsion to their genetic goals, but in their service – protecting their living deities by restricting access, by refusing to obey damaging commands, by taking the personal gods thy were given and breaking them on the wheel. The Puppets are breathtaking, a species of man which works within constrains but expands, horrifyingly and understandably, beyond them.
There are other characters of course. Belisarius is smart, funny, and can talk people into anything, but that’s the con. He needs people. Puppets. Doctors. Monsters. Lunatics. Each makes the heart sing and hurt in equal measure. The individual in a tank, living for speed outside their pressure boundary, fighting and killing and willing to accept a creed of death before acquiescence shares a table with an ex-Marine whose enthusiasm for explosives may be a smidge out of hand. If t hey’re not as much there as Belisarius, still they carry the full freight of humanity on their shoulders, odd as it may be in some cases. This is a story about a con, to be sure, and it has the highly tense emotional weight to prove it, the payoff which rewards you for turning pages. But it’s a story about people, as well, about the larger unions – how a client state struggles against colonialism, how it tries to overthrow its masters – and about the individual, about the self-realisation of our actors.
Admittedly that realisation if often backed by explosives.
If you’re not here for the imaginatively and evocatively realised universe, or the compellingly flawed characters that make up Belisarius’ flawed team of con artists and criminals, you might be here for the plot, and the wonder. It’s out there, in a larger universe, one of unexplained, ancient alien artefacts, manipulated by segments of humanity close enough to be recognisable, and odd enough to be alien. There’s immediate politics, too, backed by the kind of gunboat diplomacy that gets your attention. Then there are worlds teeming with the broken, the accepted the outcast, the strange and wonderful – and the text gives you environs which bring them to life. It’s a universe tied together by jump points, at least in part sustained by unutterably ancient and unknowable external actors. It’s an intriguing world, one which clearly has several further layers out of view, behind the transhuman cast, the foul-mouthed marines and frantic interstellar battles.
The atmosphere is one of a heist, that thin wire of tension drawing you from page to page, waiting for each other shoe to drop, each cunning stratagem to either unfurl or unravel. It’s handled with a stately precision, revealed to the reader like clockwork, giving us enough room to guess what’s coming, to hope and wonder and despair – and then to be blindsided by the result. Con games and heists are always hard to write – one like this, which comes out pitch perfect, wrapped in a nuanced and striking sci-fi narrative is, to say the least, a rarity.
In some ways this is a story about a con game – with segments of meticulous planning, with character analysis, with motivation a primary factor. In other ways it’s a space opera – with carefully analysed science, with high stakes and high yield munitions. In other ways it’s a character study of the ways man can rebuild man, and they way they can react. In all those ways, this is a book you want to read.