The Quantum Spy

Espionage, quantum computing, cryptography: a fascinating trifecta of themes. Mostly techno-thriller, with a bit of science fiction, The Quantum Spy by WaPo columnist David Ignatius seamlessly combines all three themes.

There are two orthogonal ways to look at a novel like this. One way is to evaluate it as a work of fiction: the plot, the characters, the setting. Another way is to evaluate it from a technical POV: how accurate is it, and how well does the author communicate the technical information? In either case we want to know whether it holds the reader’s attention: does it captivate you or bore you? The answers, of course, will vary from reader to reader.

First, we’ll look at it as a novel. The plot is appropriate, less confusing than the usual spy novel (IMHO) and clearly communicated. But there are two big caveats: the mole is revealed much too early, and subplots aren’t really developed. Characters are pretty thin, except for the protagonist, who has to wrestle with the consequences of being a third-generation Chinese-American — or American-Born Chinese, as many self-identify, or Overseas Chinese, as the current government of China seems to prefer. All those different identifications play a fairly important role in this novel. Finally, Ignatius does a good job with the setting, taking us around the world in a clear if not deep fashion.

Second, let’s look at The Quantum Spy as a technical work. How accurate is it, and how well does the author communicate the technical info? The answer in my case is that it’s accurate to the best of my knowledgeand that proviso is important: the explanations of quantum computing, cryptography, and CIA tradecraft are really thin, with nothing that is glaring wrong — but the trouble is that I know next to nothing about quantum computing, and I finished the novel knowing less than I had known when I started.

“All right, all right,” you object, “it’s only a novel!”

Well yes, but I had hoped for more meat here.

Finally, did It hold my attention? The answer to that, at least, is a resounding yes. It never lagged, and I suppose that if Ignatius had inserted more exposition (in order to add the technical info I craved) it would have turned off much of its audience.

Or maybe not. Who knows?

Categories: Books