If you’ve ever gotten frustrated wandering through the endless maze of rooms that is IKEA, it’s not hard to imagine that there are hidden passages that lead, not to a secret shortcut to an exit, but to another world entirely. Nino Cipri’s Nebula Award-nominated novella Finna (2020) takes that concept and adds to it a timely set of social concerns, ranging from gender identity to the evils of capitalism generally and low-wage retail jobs in particular.
Ava is a sales associate at LitenVärld (Swedish for “small world”), the fictional equivalent of IKEA, down to the gigantic parking lot and blue-and-yellow box-shaped exterior, not to mention the labyrinthine interior layout. Ava is disgruntled because she’s been called in to work on her day off, when her only desire is to stay home, binge on Netflix and Florence and the Machine, and try to recuperate from her breakup with Jules (black and nonbinary) three days before. Ava’s workday goes from bad — colliding with Jules by the break room — to worse: a customer has lost her grandmother in the store. And she and Jules discover an odd-looking passageway in the Nihilist Bachelor Cube that’s not supposed to be there. (The creative names of the various store rooms, like Pastel Goth Hideaway and Parental Basement Dweller, are one of the humorous delights of Finna.)
Their manager Tricia calls an emergency meeting of all employees, and discloses that this appearance of a “maskhål,” or wormhole, in LitenVärld has happened before, often enough that the company actually has an instructional video and a piece of equipment called a FINNA (Swedish: “find”) to track down missing customers if you feed it one of their personal belongings. What the company doesn’t have any more is a team of employees trained to navigate the wormholes with the FINNA — cost-cutting measures, you know — so Jules volunteers to search for the missing woman and Ava, as the next-most-junior employee, is voluntold to go with them.
The linked worlds they find when they enter the portal are nightmarish echoes of LitenVärld: an orchard of carnivorous plants shaped like furniture, a food court that takes payment in blood, and more. But somewhere in this crazy multiverse Ava and Jules hope to find the missing grandmother … or at least an appropriate replacement for her from another universe.
The maze-like LitenVärld being a prime location for portals to alternative fantasy worlds is an unusual concept for SF/F, if not entirely unique; for example, somewhat similarly, Grady Hendrix also explored the nightmarish aspects of an IKEA-type store in his 2014 horror novel Horrorstör. Cipri carries this concept through into the finer details, like the company having a patented mechanical device as part of its standard equipment to locate missing customers, but having laid off the teams who specialized in these searches; and sending instead the two most junior retail employees working that day. And somehow the company has managed to keep this all secret since at least 1989 (apparently no one outside the company has ever taken a close look at that FINNA patent). Cipri also has a keen eye for the soul-killing details of low-end retail jobs, and their effect on the people stuck in those thankless jobs. Jules in particular is so downtrodden by their job that it’s clear that their volunteering to explore the wormholes is, at least in part, motivated by the hope of finding a better world to live in.
For my taste, Finna spends not enough time exploring these fantasy worlds and too much time focusing on the more mundane dysfunctional relationship of Jules and Ava, who are (understandably) dealing with depression and anxiety. It’s clear that the two of them still love each other and want to be together, but their personal issues have created seemingly insurmountable roadblocks to their finding happiness together. The science fictional aspects of Finna are very soft; Cipri is far more focused on their characters’ relationship and on current social issues.
Finna isn’t shy in the slightest about these social and political messages. It takes rather a sledgehammer approach to that messaging, with repeated anti-capitalistic jabs and main characters who are both diverse and queer. The only noteworthy characters who are signaled as being white are the villains, like LitenVärld manager Tricia, who has a “Midwestern manager-class haircut” with blond highlights (could anything indicate a “Karen” more clearly?), practiced plastic facial expressions, and an utter disregard for the wellbeing of the workers she manages. There’s also Mark and Dana, the obnoxious actors in the LitenVärld training video who later morph into a nightmarish horde of clones in one of the alternative worlds that Ava and Jules stumble into.
The messaging is so heavy-handed that it tends to overwhelm the plot at times. I think it’s fair to say that the appeal of Finna will vary for readers based to a great extent on both how appealing they find these messages and how much they enjoy reading explicitly message-driven fiction. If you think capitalism sucks and IKEA is a house of horrors, and you can get into the drama of queer exes chasing through the multiverse in search of a lost customer while dealing ineptly with the aftermath of their breakup … then I’d recommend Finna to you.
I thought Finna was interesting, thought-provoking, clever, and insightful. I especially liked the anti-cannibal capitalism message, having worked several jobs across the retail spectrum, myself. I only wish this were a longer work, because I’d like to spend more time with Ava and Jules, exploring their own head-spaces and the worlds/possibilities the FINNA opens up to them. I’ll definitely seek out more of Nino Cipri’s work in the future.
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
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