The Collected Fiction of Hannu Rajaniemi
I already posted about this book, but here's the real review.
Hannu Rajaniemi must be one of the most creative and ambitious science fiction writers in our era, and his imagination is fully displayed in the whimsical, imaginative, and often downright peculiar stories of the collection. In fact, to echo that motif, I’ll start with the last two sections, in which his experimental streak is most prominent. The first, “Snow White is Dead,” is intended to be an interactive neurofiction experience: machine learning algorithms used feedback from an electroencephalography headset to lead the reader on a subconscious choose-your-own-adventure story. The second section is a collection what Rajaniemi terms “microfiction:” each microstory must convey the bones of the plot and scene in under 140 characters. The microstory starring Imhotep Austin became a serial. One of my favourite episodes:
“Kidnappings, impossibly aged bodies, green chronal energy dome in Brooklyn. Routine case--for a half-mummy detective. But now it’s personal.”
In fact, given Rajaniemi’s gift for fantastic first sentences, I suspect that many of the stories in this collection are microstories given flesh and substance. Almost all of them begin by concatenating two startling and apparently incompatible events that automatically pique the reader’s curiosity. Every single such sentence is in fact a perfect summary of events while simultaneously expressing nothing about the story’s essence. Take “Tyche and the Ants”:
“The ants arrived on the Moon on the same day Tyche went through the Secret Door to give a ruby to the Magician.”
The story is an odd melding of myth (Tyche’s friends on the moon include Chang’e and the Jade Rabbit), technology (the aforementioned ants are of the ANT-A3972 variety), and the dreams of childhood. Similarly, the first sentence of “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB” (“The moon suit came back to Hazel the same night Pete was buried at sea”) manages to both fully describe the plot while not even alluding to the core of a story about love and loss and racism. “The Server and the Dragon” (“In the beginning, before it was a Creator and a dragon, the server was alone.”) is slow-paced and contemplative, and explores what it might mean to be a server isolated from the world of information it feels compelled to serve. While not my favourite in the collection, I savoured that first sentence and the contrast between dancing dragons and baby universes.
Rajaniemi’s stories are often bewildering, catapulting the reader in the middle of an intricate world whose rules can only partially be gleaned from the story. One of the most obvious examples of this was “His Master’s Voice” (“Before the concert, we steal the master’s head.”) which is narrated by a dog. A hyperintelligent dog, I grant you, but a dog nonetheless. Rajaniemi does a wonderful job in capturing the essential dogginess of the perspective, creating a voice that muses on his master’s “god-smell” and the great triumvirate: the bowl, the Ball, and the master. The first story in the collection, “Deus Ex Homine,” opens with an energy and incredibly alien imagined future that is carried through the story:
“As gods go, I wasn’t one of the holier-than-thou, dying-for-your-sins variety. I was a full-blown transhuman deity with a liquid metal body, an external brain, clouds of self-replicating utility fog to do my bidding and a recursively self-improving AI slaved to my volition.”
The story is told by one of the casualties of the “godplague,” a phenomenon in which humans, in becoming something more than human, wreaked havoc upon civilization. As one character notes,
“Recursively self-optimizing AIs don’t kill people. Killer cyborgs kill people.”
Like other Rajaniemi stories, I was initially overwhelmed by the strangeness and complexity of the world, but was inexorably sucked into the story nevertheless. I was glad that Rajaniemi returned to the world of the godplague in another story in the collection, “Elegy for a Young Elk,” which also highlights his fondness for flashbacks. It gives the perspective of another type of casualty, a poet who refuses to become transhuman but loses his family to the godplague and its aftermath.
Rajaniemi is one of the few authors that makes me regret my lack of knowledge about physics. Although I spent a certain amount of time on wikipedia learning what WIMPS and Shkadov neclaces were, a lot of the references flew past me. One such story was “Invisible Planets,” a series of brief glimpses of bizzare worlds tenuously connected by a conversation between a darkship and one of its subminds. All the same, I enjoyed the vignettes, which, as the darkship notes,
“Are each defined not by what you speak of but by what is left unsaid.”
The technological allusions of “Skywalker of Earth” (“Twelve hours before the rain of ships.”) were also lost on me. Skywalker, the longest story of the collection by far, was almost reminiscent of a Professor Challenger adventure story if it could be transformed into modern hard science fiction.(show spoiler)
Not all the stories take place in a far future. Many weave together elements of contemporary life and Finnish mythology. “Fisher of Men” tells the story of an ambitious entrepreneur’s run-in with Vellamo and Iku-Turso. “The Viper Blanket”, which involves the myths of Tuoni, is a perfect blend of creepiness and mundanity. It starts with an old man checking his brother out of the nursing home as they discuss ritual sacrifice and then just keeps getting weirder from there. “The Oldest Game” weaves together one man’s broken life and a contest with Pekko.
Some of the stories involve neither Finnish mythos nor possible futures. “Ghost Dogs” creates its own urban myth. It is a nostalgic, bittersweet story, told with a child’s perspective and insight. “Paris, In Love,” is a sentimental tale a Finnish man who falls in love with a city only to discover that the feeling is mutual. “Satan’s Typist” is a disturbing bit of horror that puts a different perspective on hellish forms.
Several stories explore the way technology may shape humanity in the not-too-distant future. In “Topsight” (“The night before Kuovi was supposed to fly home, the four of them went to bring back Bibi’s soul”), Kuovi finds her dead friend’s “halo,” a contraption of sensors with a brain-computing interface, and begins to wonder if it will let her see through Bibi’s eyes. “The Jugaad Cathedral” (“On the day they finally got the Cathedral’s mermaid bone factory working, Kev told Raija he was not going to come back.”) explores not the threat of technology but of its regulation. It takes place in a future world where human interaction revolves around social networks, where every action and inaction is reflected in the numeric scores that describe each person’s place in the world. Cloud computing is everywhere, but after the Lockdown, everything is monitored and regulated and limited and subject to DRM. “Shibuya no Love” (“They were eating takoyaki by the statue of Hachiko the dog when Norie told her to buy a quantum lovegety.”) whimsically portrays a future in which artificial intelligence and advanced algorithms can predict far more than romantic compatibility.
Rajaniemi combines incredible technological expertise with such a vast imagination that many of his stories leave me overwhelmed by the worlds he creates. This collection demonstrates his breadth as well, involving everything from his invention of neurofiction to his stories of algorithmic romance to his tales that invoke ancient Finnish gods. Whatever the genre or subject, Rajaniemi’s stories are guaranteed to be interesting, unique, and utterly captivating. If a science fiction author’s job is to “think of impossible things,” then I can’t imagine anyone who does it better.
**Note: the quotes here are taken from an uncorrected advance reader copy of the book; however, I believe they speak to the nature of the book as a whole. Any typographical errors are mine.**
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Tachyon Publications, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you! ~~