It’s hard to even begin to express how much of a Hannu Rajaniemi fan I am. I have reviewed his books before (here and here in English, and here and here in Bulgarian), journeying through them has always been electrifying. His fiction is a vortex where the science and strangeness of the future meet, exploding in ferris wheel fireworks of bold ideas, narrative complexity and damned good writing. It’s the kind of prose that could go into textbooks on why and how SF is the awesome thing it is (alas, no such textbooks that I know of).
Seriously. Hannu Rajaniemi is one of the few writers who balance a sound scientific background with a vivid writerly talent, expertly enough to hammer out a vision of the future that is truly alien, and yet so very relatable. It is one of the crowning feats of good SF – to make the seemingly impossible behave as though it is reasonable and, ultimately, quite plausible. The miracles of fantasy and SF lure readers with their desirability, even when they are terrifying. The gap between how much we want those miracles and how impossible it is to have them is by now something we as readers are comfortable with (should we really be?). But Rajaniemi’s fiction imbues the genre with a brand new strain of cognitive dissonance: yes, you can have those miracles! Maybe not literally, but you can certainly understand them rationally, you only need to pay attention. Often enough, you don’t even need to have read academic papers in the relevant subjects!
“Damn you, Occam’s razor,” thinks one of Rajaniemi’s protagonists, when rationality forces her to parse the impossible into the most likely. Incidentally or not, that story is probably the most flamboyantly incredible of those in the collection (think Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon). This has to mean something when the very first paragraph of the book runs like this:
“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. I could do anything I wanted. I wasn’t Jesus, I was a Superman: an evil Bizarro Superman.”
Many of the stories erupt with similar bravado, right away; he knows how to write his first sentences. But his stories are not just flashy toys for the nerdier segments of society. In fact, they work best when they connect at a deeper level with real life.
“Real life? I see,” says another female character, a Dwarfcraft master architect in one of the best stories, The Jugaad Cathedral, in which deep learning algorithms can safely predict whether you are going to have sex tonight and augmented reality pop-ups inform you that the beer you just downed inflicted a -1 Constitution penalty on you. It is a piece that blurs the lines between real and virtual, not as in cyberpunk, or in a Philip Dickian sort of way (though there are the seeds of both in that garden), but on a much more human level. The future is coming and, yes, it probably will be super exciting, but it will also challenge our humanity; we can either model or be modelled. Most of his characters—be they post-gods, elk hunters, kids in troubled families, dragons, darkships, dogs, tourists or expats—ultimately choose to model, in their own way. Some of the stories, of course, have more depth to their models and modelers. None lack in inventiveness, though.
It is remarkable how much range Rajaniemi shows here. Having read the Jean le Flambeur novels, I wasn’t surprised by the techno-miracles and post-singularity futures (fans of the trilogy will recognize a lot of familiar concepts; in that regard the collection very nicely modulates the vision outlined in the series). Even the micro- and “neurofiction” stories toward the end weren’t unexpected, what with him having a PhD in string theory, running a math think-tank, being a Singularity University alumnus, etc.
What surprised me more was Rajaniemi’s readiness and apparent relish in employing Finnish folk lore in the fantasy/horror-oriented pieces (some merpeople, a goddess of death and a heavy-drinking giant make appearances). Those evoke a strong sense of place, and of the people who call those places home and are in some sense trapped in them (associations with Mieli and the Oortians from the trilogy come naturally to mind); that is something that can enliven immensely any tale of the fantastic. His stories about outsiders in alien countries convey with equal force what it is like not to be at home, to miss that familiar trap. And there is that final cluster of tales that can only be called cosmic (I heard it on a podcast that Rajaniemi is a big Stapledon fan), half-fable, half-cosmogony, doffing proverbial hats to the likes of Calvino, yet blithely ironic and not shying away from some hot dragon sex. That last one seems to be a thing for Rajaniemi, there’s also this quote from The Fractal Prince: “I’m going to find a job that does not involve breaking into giant machines full of lesbian dragon sex.” The man might be diverse, but he’s also consistent!
The writing too is top-notch. Sometimes it is a bit too wordy and eager, especially when technology talk threatens to overrun the narrative, but most of the time Rajaniemi is in control. And sometimes he conjures an image of juxtaposition that is so impossible and bittersweet that it just feels right:
“They come down slowly. The downdraft from the micron-sized fans in the angel’s wings tears petals from Sue’s chrysanthemums.”
“Words had become slippery, harder to catch than elk.”
Being a Finnish SF writer working in English has turned out very well for Rajaniemi, that’s all I will say.
This collection of short fiction is not without flaws. The SF novel is a very natural artistic form to host these grand visions. There Rajaniemi fleshes out baroque constructions that somehow manage to come fully alive, borne by logic, authentic vision and structural experimentation. Writing novels like The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince, slim though they are, is simply impossible without huge investments of time and effort. The stories here rarely enjoy this kind of structural support, they are more straightforward and light-hearted. As such, they probably won’t inform the genre comparably. That lack of play with structure prevents them from growing connections between each other, from achieving unity. Nevertheless, they certainly constitute an important gesture in the early stage of this writer’s career path, one that will hopefully serve as a foundation for many more to follow.
The nature of this gesture? I will use a quotation from the book: “the elusive algebra of emergence”. Isn’t that what we read SF for? Let’s hope he gets to complicate and elucidate that algebra again and again, with even more verve and sharpness, over many creative iterations. For infinity is always elusive, and we won’t settle for less.
“During the millennia of its journey, the darkship’s mind has expanded, until it has become something that has to be explored and mapped. The treasures it contains can only be described in metaphors, brittle and misleading and distant, like mirages.”
PS: Special thanks to the folks at Tachyon Publications for the ARC. It was a pleasure.
Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction
Deus Ex Homine
The Server and the Dragon
Tyche and the Ants
The Haunting of Apollo A7LB
His Master’s Voice
Elegy for a Young Elk
The Jugaad Cathedral
Fisher of Men
The Viper Blanket
Paris, in Love
The Oldest Game
Shibuya no Love
Skywalker of Earth
Neurofiction: Snow White is Dead
Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories