There is disappointment in the performance of Secret Intelligence Service operative Rachel White; assigned to the defector Yakov Mikhailovich Kulagin, he was uncooperative and challenging to his handler, imparting only a single piece of possibly significant but uncorroborated information before his suicide, that an SIS operative based in Summerland is a double agent.
Rachel an operative of the Winter Court, the terrestrial branch of the SIS, the aetheric equivalent is the Summer Court, but having died without a Hinton Ticket which would have guided his spirit Kulagin will have Faded almost immediately without transferring over into its auspices to continue his interrogation and debriefing.
Without evidence to back it up, Rachel’s claim is dismissed by her superiors as an attempt by Kulagin to sow dissent rather than actual usable intelligence and she is reassigned to menial tasks away from field activities, but comes to believe the real reason for her demotion is that the individual accused is protected, not because of his service record but because of his connections, and against orders she continues her off-the-book investigation.
The fourth novel from Finnish writer Hannu Rajaniemi, Summerland could not be more different from his exotic science fiction trilogy, The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel, the high technology of the splintered societies spread across the solar system giving way to a fundamentally different mechanism underpinning the turbulent world of 1938, a merging of steampunk and spiritualism.
The confirmation of the existence of the spirit world having led to the experiments of Guglielmo Marconi and Oliver Lodge which established communications via the Zöllner crystal radio, the definitive treatise on the subject The Science of Death written by Herbert Blanco West, now Prime Minister of Britain to whom Rachel’s superiors are answerable, his fascination with ectotechnology stemming from his early involvement as chronicler of the new frontier.
The borders between life and death rescinded, the spirit world and her work seep into Rachel’s personal life and her difficult marriage, her husband Joe a former Captain of the Royal Aetheric Force whose wartime experiences still manifest as nightmares, her few friendships eroded as she becomes a pariah within the department, unable to compete with the old boys’ network.
A shadowy world of technology powered by the energy of souls, the overlapping dimensions make the otherwise opaque permeable to the dead who can see through flesh and bone to the soul, who can communicate via ectophones or manifest in mediums via spirit crown or mechanical Edison Dolls, a mesmerising realm of extra dimensions where all is laid clear yet deceit and treachery are as endemic as in the world of the living.
The surreal impinging on the ordinary and reshaping the world, Summerland in many ways reminds of China Miéville‘s The Last Days of New Paris, the occupied continent replaced by the cold streets of London and Rajaniemi more focused on plot than in rapture to how exotic his premise is even though it is the uncanny engine which drives every action in a spy thriller where the spooks are often literally spooks.
The roles of asset and handler both demand absolute dedication and trust, deception and entrapment of the enemy are difficult when the dead can see the thoughts and emotions of the living, Rajaniemi having meticulously considered the implications of the revelation of Summerland across society, the ability to talk to the dead who can speak without fear of repercussion to identify their murderers, religions scrabbling to reinvent themselves, the stagnant world no longer concerned with bettering itself when the afterlife is potentially open to all.
The prose reading like one of the celebrated scientific romances of H G Wells, there are direct references to his most famous works but lurking in the undercurrents of the aether is the ghost of another writer of the era, the phantasmagoria of H P Lovecraft and the shapeless horror of his Old Ones, and despite the early feeling of having been thrown in at the deep end Rajaniemi is an assuring presence, a lifeguard setting a brisk pace through stormy waters he knows well.