I have long been a connoisseur of spy novels. John Le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming… you name it and I’ve most probably read it. Therefore it is the name of the novel itself that attracted me to read David Ignatius’ The Quantum Spy. Having never read anything else by Ignatius, I was skeptical going in. Boy, was I surprised !
The Quantum Spy gives an (I hope exaggerated) insight into the technological race between USA, the frontrunner of pretty much everything in the world, and China, aspiring global power numero uno. The focus here is on Quantum Computing, the holy grail of high speed, high efficiency computing that no one has been able to perfect (yet). Both these countries are fighting tooth and nail, spending exorbitant amounts of money and doing unspeakable unthinkable things just to be the first to achieve this goal.
I quite enjoyed the character sketches put forth by Ignatius. Without exception, they are all flawed, which makes them extremely interesting. Harris Chang is a very likeable protagonist, battling inner and outer demons at once, the most blatant one being racism. It is a running theme that no one from both countries can look past his skin colour. The Chinese see an overseas Chinese man, who in their mind, is fundamentally Chinese, though in an American Costume. The Americans just see a Chinese man, whose loyalties are in doubt in lieu of his skin colour. While he starts out as a patriotic American man, a war veteran no less, towards the end, there is a duality in him that is quite appealing. The main antagonist (that is probably too strong a word), is almost the same. Although in this person’s case, marginalisation rather than racism is the main issue. This person’s actions are justified as having been done for the greater good, which is a little trite. But the portrayal never comes across as dull. Same is true of all the characters.
The story lines blend seamlessly into one another. The complex inner workings of the CIA and the MSS made for very engaging reading. I did find the prose a little unsophisticated in certain places, especially in the beginning, but it seemed to repair itself as the novel went along. All in all, I would characterise it as a surprisingly delightful one-time read.