In his Collected Fiction of nearly twenty stories ranging from the micro style of Twitter fiction to a more traditional length, Hannu Rajaniemi displays a generally hopeful, but cautionary, view of humanity’s future and the rapid onslaught of technology. Of primary importance is the need to recognize the value of others amid the increasing electronic noise in which we all seem to live. Rajaniemi is a physicist with the heart of a poet (and vice-versa) who takes data packets, social networks, saunas, and the sea, and weaves them all together into completely unique experiences.
“Deus Ex Homine” features a God-plague which has taken over human minds and bodies. Genetically modified human soldiers fight them by riding around in living armor suits called “angels.” Killer cyborgs, brain hacking, and wormholes also make appearances. Detailed descriptions of future tech are less important than human interactions, the emotional complexity between loved ones or within themselves, and the effort to maintain an individual identity.
When Rajaniemi’s stories focus on the people as they exist within new and overwhelming technology, the words sparkle. When the stories dissolve into techno-babble, I get lost — but that’s my fault, not the author’s. Rajaniemi’s forte is physics; mine is coffee. Generally, though, he keeps the terms accessible through context, and the stories themselves are enjoyable enough to carry unfamiliar readers through any concepts which may be brand-new.
Case in point: “The Server and the Dragon.” I don’t understand anything about Dyson statites, interferometers, membrane universes, or servers. What I do understand is that it’s a creation story for the quantum physics set, and as it is, it’s a lovely and bittersweet tale.
“Tyche and the Ants” has a fascinating, fairy-tale feel: a girl explores the surface of Luna. It’s impossible to discern the age of Tyche, since her point of view is very childlike and restricted by strict boundaries. I love the references to Chang’e and Jade Rabbit — her imaginary friends are exactly what one might expect an intelligent child to come up with to amuse herself. Outsiders threaten, though, and her safe haven has to be abandoned, making me wonder what will happen to her and whether she would be able to make her own Right Place without her parents’ guidance.
“The Haunting of Apollo A7LB” is lovely, sweet, and short. It beautifully merges the “old” space race with the “new,” emphasizing the need for a connection between history and future. Again, it’s more about humans than technology: a now-deceased astronaut’s spacesuit comes to visit the seamstress who created it, and the young man who bought the suit is an unwilling passenger. There’s no explanation for how the suit is haunted, but none is needed for understanding or appreciating the story.
“His Master’s Voice” was occasionally hit-or-miss for me due to the point of view: a terrier who has been elevated to near-human consciousness. Choosing this narrative device was a risky move because there’s a fine line between sounding too human (and therefore unbelievable as a previously non-human intelligence) and too non-human, which can be difficult to readers to follow. The dog’s character isn’t always accessible, since there’s no context for the size of the dog or what’s actually happening in the plot until the very end. While not the strongest story of the collection, it’s still creative and inventive.
“Elegy for a Young Elk” was luminous, heartfelt, and poetic, full of complex emotions and motivations. Kosonen’s humanity in a thoroughly technological world are inextricable from his experiences of being a father, husband, and poet, but it’s that stubborn insistence on the sovereignty of self which makes him capable of performing an impossible task. Plus, there’s a talking bear!
“The Jugaad Cathedral” pits real life against virtual existence. Whose experiences are more valid and fulfilling, Kev or Raija? Which matters more, social status or personal happiness? Do they need to be in opposition, or can some kind of harmony be achieved? I loved the concept of a computer game like Dwarfcraft and its limitless possibilities; as an MMO player, this appeals to me far more than social-media interfaces do, so I side with Raija. Who cares about social points and Fashion scores? The way everything’s been turned into an interface or a game, with points to be won or lost among one’s peers, simply takes the seeds of what we have now (Foursquare, Farmville, Facebook, etc.) and extrapolates those programs until they have real consequences and real social currency.
“Fisher of Men” was a really great modern folktale with an excellent twist at the end. It’s utterly Finnish and strange and enchanting. A wealthy entrepreneur meets the daughter of the sea on the beach outside his vacation home, and she takes a liking to him, which has dangerous consequences for both of them. Can there be an equal partnership between a man and the daughter of a god? Rajaniemi’s answer (or lack thereof) left me curious long after I had moved on.
“Invisible Planets” begins with an apology to Italo Calvino, the late Italian writer of short stories and novels. As a darkship crosses between galaxies, a sub-mind within the ship’s brain recites details of ancient planets. The information is presented in the broad strokes of a travel agent’s catalogue, and the interactions between the sub-mind and the larger intelligence read like a minor courtier addressing a king. The story contains many intriguing ideas that aren’t explored to my satisfaction, and I’m not sure how the long-dead civilizations connect to the ship’s “yearning for eternity.”
“Ghost Dogs” features spectral canines that haunt a house, causing dissent between family members. A young boy and his two loyal dogs must be brave if they’re to protect the home and keep his parents from separating. It’s an interesting allegory for family stress.
“The Viper Blanket” explores family traditions and the ways that old cultures try to survive the passage of time. Right off the bat, it’s plain that the Hurme family is off-kilter, but how much so is slowly drawn out. Rajaniemi taps into fears of ghosts and something worse, something older than the perceived safety of everyday life.
“Paris, in Love” is a lovely little magical realism story about a city in love with a man. Literally, the city of Paris falls in love with Antti, a Finnish farmer. This short piece displays the range of Rajaniemi’s talent, humor, and skill, and was so much fun to read.
“Topsight” is too short, perhaps, or not detailed enough to explore the range of ideas and emotions packed into it. There’s a possibly-murdered girl, Bibi, but her disappearance is the weakest element because the story isn’t about her, it’s about her quasi-friend Kuovi and the lesson she learns about herself. Kuovi’s friends know nothing about her, which is meant to be frustrating because that’s what over-reliance on tech does to people, but I got the sense that Rajaniemi doesn’t really know anything about Bibi, so it was just frustrating across the board.
“The Oldest Game” is another tale of old magic and folklore intruding into the modern world. Oranen must reconnect with the land and the barley-god Pekko in order for his life to have meaning again. Oranen learns that if history is forgotten, then there is no context or appreciation for the present. The story also examines the misunderstandings between fathers and sons, and the sacrifices parents must make for their offsprings’ happiness or success. It’s a complex, but short, tale.
“Shibuya no Love” looks at a night in the life of Riina, a Finnish girl living in Tokyo. Quantum lovegetys are how people date, simulating emotional and physical interactions through tiny machines. The simulations are so realistic that one’s heart can be broken before even touching another other person’s hand or proper introductions are made. So where can real love be found? Neither Riina nor Rajaniemi provide the answer.
“Satan’s Typist” is extremely short, only about two pages long, but…yikes. In a very good, my skin is crawling, get me to the next story NOW, kind of way.
“Skywalker of Earth” is the longest story, and pleasantly reminiscent of Golden Age sci-fi: an epic battle between geniuses who were once allies and are now bitter enemies while the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, and because that’s not bombastic enough, impossible alien technology squares off against human ingenuity. It’s fun, fast-paced, and imaginative.
“Snow White is Dead” is the result of an interesting experiment involving audience participation, electroencephalography headsets, and how reading text changes brain activity. I’m glad that an introduction was included with the story because the narrative shifts and doubles back on itself in several places, and this would have been maddening without an explanation as to why. As is, it’s still confusing, but in a thought-provoking rather than bothersome way. I like the subversion and inclusion of fairy tale themes and the Snow White archetype as they’re paired with a plausibly modern setting and details.
“Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories” are examples of Rajaniemi’s experimentation on Twitter with story form and function. They’re interesting in an academic way — how does an author create a recognizable and effective narrative in 140 characters? The most successful of these attempts are the Imhotep Austin serials; the short format marries well with the frenetic, pulpy style of hard-boiled noir. And the idea of a half-mummy detective is just too good to pass up.
Rajaniemi’s inclusion of saunas, certain social cues and behaviors, names and occasional interjections of Finnish words help to ground these stories in specific places and cultural experiences which I haven’t seen represented often (if ever) in science fiction. It’s a very welcome change from Anglo/U.S.-centric plots and characters. If you’re new to Rajaniemi’s work, I highly recommend beginning with his Collected Fiction.