Title:                      The Quantum Spy

Author:                   David Ignatius

Ignatius, David (2018). The Quantum Spy: a thriller. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

LCCN:    2017015373

PS3559.G54 Q36 2018

Date Posted:      December 1, 2017

Reviewed by Marisha Pessl[1]

A similar widespread villainy lies at the heart of David Ignatius’s The Quantum Spy, a somber espionage procedural about the race to build the world’s first quantum computer—a theoretical frontier at the intersection of computer science and quantum physics. Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist who has long covered the C.I.A., and he happily takes us for a jaunt through a world of anonymous hotel rooms and conference tables across Beijing and Vancouver and Dubai, where decisions to take someone off “the shelf” (i.e., bring him or her back into action) are blankly relayed and executed. American start-ups on the brink of game-changing innovation are visited by a C.I.A. officer, a “lean, putty-faced man with a bad haircut” who quietly demands for the United States government to be their only client. Operatives aspire to the “highest art” of their profession: to “appear ordinary.”

Here, the ostensible enemy is a mole inside the C.I.A. known as RUKOU, or the DOORWAY, whom the C.I.A. must ferret out and eliminate, all the while keeping the Chinese away from their technological breakthroughs—a Sisyphean exercise if ever there was one.

The mood is mournful and restrained. The C.I.A.’s vibe feels like a highway motel with thin walls, a smell of chlorine, a vending machine where your Twix gets stuck on the glass. The most delightful aspect of the book is the characterization of the Chinese—their expletive-ridden insults, downbeat perspective (“Bad luck is always hiding inside the doorway, down the next hutong”), and quirks. Chinese agents carry a mijian with them at all times, “a small, leatherbound diary” in which they write things “that were never, ever to be shared.” In one fascinating scene set in Mexico, a Chinese agent with a Spanish accent unnerves the Chinese-American hero, Harris Chang, by unveiling Chang’s own secret political Chinese ancestry to him. It proves to be a surprisingly powerful interrogation technique: “He was uncomfortable. It was as if someone else had taken possession of his life story.”

It comes to light that the mole is motivated by a desire to build “one world”—a single borderless country that brings to mind Facebook’s hope to “bring the world closer together.” But infinitely more devastating than any double agent is the operating hollowness at the heart of the C.I.A. When superiors question Chang’s loyalty, he submits to three polygraphs; however no lie detector can resolve the problem. Neither innocent nor guilty, he is afflicted by a lack of resolve: “He occupied a space where things are ambiguous, where people are simultaneously friend and foe, loyal and disloyal, impossible to define until the moment when events intervene and force each particle, each heart, to one side or the other.” The agent is a spinning electron in the atom, eluding capture by a Heisenberg uncertainty principle. There is the probability of an exact location, which holds true only during the nanosecond of perception. Then he is at large again, careening around a moral fog.

[1] Marisha Pessl, “Our Villains, Ourselves: A Thriller Roundup,” The New York Times Book Review. Marisha Pessl is the author of the novels Night Film and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Her next book, Neverworld Wake, will be published in 2018. A version of this article appears in print on October 29, 2017, on Page BR16 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Thrillers.

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