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Once a physicist: Hannu Rajaniemi

Hannu Rajaniemi is an Edinburgh-based science-fiction writer whose first novel, The Quantum Thief, is published by Gollancz in paperback this month.

Once a physicist: Hannu Rajaniemi

What sparked your interest in physics?
From quite early on, I had this sense of wonder at the fact that there seems to be some sort of underlying mathematical structure that the universe obeys, and we are able to access it. This is a very counterintuitive thing: humans evolved as hunter-gatherers on the savannah, yet we have been able to develop this abstract language that says some very deep things about how the universe works. I was a big fan of Jules Verne and a book called Our Friend, the Atom, which is a history of atomic physics done in a very 1950s "techno-optimistic" style. I started out studying theoretical physics at the University of Oulu, Finland, but ended up getting my degree in pure mathematics. Then I did part III of the mathematical tripos at Cambridge, followed by a PhD at the University of Edinburgh that combined mathematics and physics. I consider myself more of a mathematician than a physicist, although my research was in string theory, which mingles the two.

What inspired you to write science fiction?
I have always been a science-fiction reader, and I had various creative pursuits at university, including playing table-top role-playing games. But when I came to the UK, I lost touch with the people I was doing that with, so writing became an attempt to find an alternative outlet for my creative impulses. One thing that really helped was that I joined a writers' group in Edinburgh that included some well-established professional members, and they encouraged me to believe that I could write and be published.

How does science enter your writing?
My first novel is called The Quantum Thief, and it grew out of this idea I had of writing a sort of "heist" story set in a very distant, technically advanced future. On reflection, I decided that this idea posed some problems, because if you think about the implications that technology would have on future societies, one thing that comes to mind is that advances might lead to a "post-scarcity" situation in which material goods no longer have any value. So what would people have that was worth stealing? There might be some intangible things such as identity or reputation that would have value, but they did not seem all that interesting to me. Then I realized that one strong element in this future world would be quantum information, and in quantum mechanics there is something called the "no-clone theorem" that says you cannot copy, or clone, a quantum state. So I came up with the idea that in this future world, there might be a "quantum thief" who would steal actual quantum states that had some intrinsic value.

What are your other influences?
I have quite a fondness for 19th-century authors of science fiction and detective stories – people such as Maurice Leblanc and Arthur Conan Doyle – and I also admire some more contemporary writers including Roger Zelazny and Ian McDonald. Another influence is Geoff Manaugh whose blog about architecture, BLDGBLOG, features some strange and bizarre architectural ideas such as walking cities. I got an idea from there about "memory castles", which is the ancient technique of structuring your thoughts in terms of imagined or real spaces, with objects in those spaces acting as mnemonic devices. The other writers in the Edinburgh group also really helped me develop my craft. A writer is always a bit like a magpie – you collect things from all over.

What are you working on now?
My next novel, The Fractal Prince, will be a sequel to The Quantum Thief, and it will take some of the characters in the first book and add new themes and characters to the mix. Whereas The Quantum Thief is about privacy and how memories shape identities, the new book will be more concerned with how consciousness and the nature of stories could change in a future where our minds are digitally malleable. I am also a co-founder of a private mathematical research firm, ThinkTank Maths, so in that sense I am still very much involved in science, though more on the leadership side.

Do you have any advice for current physics students with an interest in writing?
Read widely – not just in physics but also philosophy, history, world literature – and develop interests that allow you to see physics in a wider context, rather than as just an isolated subject. I think writing is very much about developing some kind of world view that you want to communicate, so it is good to see the big picture.

This article appears in the November 2011 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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