Standing at the foot of the cascade of ideas, the tumbling waterfall of words and images can sweep the unwary off their feet, undercurrents sucking them downstream to an ocean of imagination and intellect where the unprepared can drown. Such it is with the first comprehensive collection of short stories by Hannu Rajaniemi, eighteen principal pieces the majority of which were written during his years as a resident of Edinburgh, his wandering now having taken him to distant shores of sunshine.
His Quantum Thief trilogy having been completed with the publication of The Causal Angel and his next novel not due until summer 2016, Collected Fiction has been released at the ideal time, but it is not a book which can be easily categorised. While there are themes which reoccur, and indeed much of the technology referenced here such as utility fog was also feature in The Quantum Thief, equally he often doesn’t use the conventional terminology of science fiction; everything is unique, bespoke, deeply of his own conception.
The stories are neither arranged chronologically nor thematically, but there are emergent strands, the first of which is high technology, first in Deus Ex Homine as narrator Jukka is reunited with his girlfriend Aileen, an Angel in the Deicide Corps, on leave from the godplague war which conventional language and concepts can’t describe, yet Rajaniemi is deft in outlining all that is needed to intuit a relationship and a situation, his sparse words used with precision.
Moving into space, in Tyche and the Ants he’s able to make the surface of the Moon, likely the most explored body in science fiction, seem wild and alien again. With the rhythm and logic of a fairytale, Tyche heads out on an excursion, running free and without escort despite cautionary regulations but finds a dangerous incursion; the Brain evaluates that the best course of action is evacuation, but Tyche refuses to cooperate.
Staying with space exploration but a very different tale of a haunted spacesuit than Alastair Reynolds’ Monkey Suit, The Haunting of Apollo A7LB feels much more traditional, almost Bradbury in its nostalgia, the tale of a lively and stubborn woman who many years before was a seamstress for the space programme, a past which quite literally comes knocking on her door one night.
Deeply abstract and told from the point of view whose primary sense is smell, a science fiction Watership Down on an oil rig over a stormy ocean, His Master’s Voice sees a dog and a cat on a mission to rescue their true Master, guilty of crimes against a tech corporation, the dog loyal but easily distracted while the cat is more focused but detached. With aspects which remind of Blade Runner in created animals and a surrogate child created by technology, a modern twist comes from the complications of clones and digital rights management and echoing The Quantum Thief is the implication that immortality most often brings poverty.
Moving from the post-human to the wholly inorganic, The Server and the Dragon features enormous, inconceivable technologies housing a vastly intelligent artificial consuming whole worlds to make itself into its desired form, Rajaniemi channelling his own experiences in mathematical physics, string theory and brane theory refracted through the prism of wildly speculative fiction into glittering prose, two incompatible agencies mingling and tearing each other apart.
Deep space is also the setting of Invisible Planets, inspired by Italo Calvino’s surrealist 1972 novel Invisible Cities, a recounting of the worlds encountered by a darkship travelling the Cygnus 61 system, “the electromagnetic echoes of young civilisations and the warm infrared dreams of Dyson spheres.” So we pass the planets Oya and nearby Nirgal which became its graveyard beneath the rusted dust; Laksmi, the planet where everybody builds their own rockets and distills fuel to mine the cosmic coffers of quantum cryptocurrencies; the floating cities of Ki and their flying citizens, constantly at war with gravity; Glaukopis, where the unique vision of an individual is the only commodity worth trading; Seshat, the world where every word spoken and every thought conceived is written, a superfluity of syntax; and finally silent Zywie, awaiting the rise of a new civilisation.
The second strand which emerges is tied to Finnish folklore, stories which are difficult to summarise, impressions of snow in the rain, the scent of gods and vodka and woodsmoke under the stars, the advanced technologies sometimes so intricately woven into their users that, in accordance with Clarke’s Third Law, they seem almost magical, particularly when set against the fantasia of the snowy forests of Rajaniemi’s homeland.
This strand is most apparent in the three stories originally gathered in Words of Birth and Death. First is the Fisher of Men who Jaakko Rissanen sees lighting a fire to cook the fish which she has caught on the shore near his summerhouse on the island of Ahtolanniemi; he asks her to stop, but instead it is she who draws him to the cold water to make him her husband.
Almost a companion piece, both tales of men who have met women from the afterlife though one is set in daylight in the summer the other on All Hallow’s Eve in the cold dead of night, The Viper Blanket sees elderly Markku Hurme and his brother take a road trip to a derelict church for a reunion with their “family beneath the earth” where a sacrifice will be expected.
The sauna, centre of Finnish culture, is well represented, a recurrence of steaming coals and echoes of the graveyard, and it features prominently in The Oldest Game (titled Barley Child in Words of Birth and Death) where Oranen returns to his home with the intention of drinking himself to death in the fields of the ancient pagan deity Pellon Pekko, god of crops.
In Elegy for a Young Elk the woodland poet Kosonen encounters what appears to be his former wife Marja who asks him to cross the firewall into the city, but she may also be an avatar of the plague god come to taunt him. People and machines masquerading in the bodies of others is a recurring theme, and like Deus Ex Homine this tale relates to a family member whose upgrades went wild and infected them, left them who they are but added something else, something alien. Perhaps coincidentally, the virtual realm of this story is described as summerland, the title of Rajaniemi’s forthcoming novel.
An exercise in incongruity, the pale yellow square of the sun, redstone circuits, pixellated braids and a cathedral under construction inside a secret server shard, The Jugaad Cathedral is set between Edinburgh and a shared virtual realm where crippleware is set to disable devices and prevent the unauthorised flow of information while real world interactions are mediated through the Frendipity app where the only things tangible are the heartbreak of rejection and the tang of Irn Bru.
Relationships are also the concern of Shibuya No Love as the eternal question of how to meet boys isn’t going to go away in the future, and if anything will be more complicated in the venerable and strict heirarchy of Japanese culture where etiquette must always be observed, but the lovegety offers an immediacy and intimacy which makes Grindr seem tame. Romance is no less awkward for Antti who travels to Paris, in Love, and the city flirtatiously embraces him and shares her secret places, and though he returns to Finland his heart remains by the banks of the Seine.
A tale of canine possession in a domestic setting which is more Stephen King than high tech Hannu, Ghost Dogs could also be a tale of parental discord seen through the eyes of a child while Satan’s Typist is less ambiguous, short, sharp, perfectly formed and perfectly horrible, though the ghosts which echo through Topsight are digital, the continuing fingerprint of online profiles.
Almost a traditional science fiction tale, certainly more than anything else in the book, Skywalker of Earth is a fifties B-movie written with cutting edge technobabble but is also a hugely entertaining romp through a solar system in jeopardy. Twisting the inherent sexism of the time on its ear with the evil genius dismissing Kathryn Leroy as irrelevant and so giving her the freedom to act and later saving the day by open sourcing the resistance, a revolution mediated through global communication, it may become purposely overblown but it never drags.
Rajaniemi has a great love for an opening line which borders on the inexplicable which demands the reader investigate further, but there is such a variety of material with no clear through line that it would have been helpful to have some background on the stories or an introduction to explain their origins and publication history. The exceptions to this which are given explanatory notes are the “Twitter microfictions” gathered in Unused Tomorrows and the introduction to Snow White is Dead, Rajamiemi’s experiment in Neurofiction.
A familiar story retold in a new way for a modern audience, the archetypes and situations are updated and subverted and told in a bold visual prose, stark colours and images and sudden changes of track to invoke a dramatic response in the brain discernible by electrodes in the original presentation; even without the added level of involvement, it remains enjoyable and relevant, a further demonstration of how science fiction is expanding the possibilities of literature and human experience.