Reading Finnish speculative fiction

Where can I find interesting Finnish speculative fiction?”, asked one fan once at a con. Well, from many places, unfortunately mainly in Finnish, of course. There are many wonderful local talents, whose ideas, style, love of language and pure uninhibited storytelling verve would deserve to be recognised by a larger audience. But, alas, not so.

As you know, Bob, Finnish is a member of the Finno-Ugric language family and is typologically between fusional and agglutinative languages. It modifies and inflects the forms of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals and verbs, depending on their roles in the sentence.” Or so says Wikipedia. Whatever it’s worth, it might as well be from Mars for the billions non-Finns and the handful of gritty foreigners who have had the temerity to learn our beautiful language.

But, I digress. What I meant to write was about the current local speculative fiction field. I use the term “speculative fiction” here since it fairly well encompasses the field we’re talking about. Finns read a lot. We write a lot, too. Some science fiction, some fantasy, some horror, some new weird, even. A number of writers, that would generally be called mainstream prosaists, have this almost northern magical realist tendency to blur the borders of genres. Writers like Arto Paasilinna, who is HUGE in France. His Magnum opus Jäniksen vuosi (The Year of the Hare) was recently turned into a motion picture, starring Christopher Lambert [but don’t hold that against Arto]).

Readers of this blog may remember names like Leena Krohn and Johanna Sinisalo, who have had some of their work translated within last few years. Krohn’s Tainaron and Sinisalo’s Not Before Sundown (also known as Troll, A Love Story) are proper examples of some of the best speculative fiction Finland has to offer, but there’s more. One more name to take notice of is Hannu Rajaniemi, who actually lives in Scotland and has just gotten a three-book-deal with Gollancz. Debut novel deal. On a basis of just one chapter! Can’t wait to read that one!

Tero mentioned Risto Isomäki, whose wonderful novel Sarasvatin hiekkaa (Sands of Saraswati) is nowadays also a comic book (and a fine example that is, too). Isomäki is a true hardcore-sf author, the kind you read in amazement of the ideas, while cringing at the unfortunateness of the choices made in character development and dialogue. But the ideas! Isomäki burst into the national field in 1991 with his Award-winning short story “Puu” (“Tree”), which generated such enthusiasm among the Finnish fandom, that many were certain if it had been published in English, it’d been a serious contender for Best Short Story (or is it novellette sized?) Hugo.

Isomäki deals with lots of environmental issues in his writings. He is an activist and works extensively with problems of both globalization and underdeveloped countries in multiple fora. His latest novel, called Litium 6 (Lithium 6), deals again with serious eco-political issues. Should he be translated to other languages then? In my opinion, yes. Now that Michael Crichton has passed away, the niche market for Big Idea -thrillers has an opening and filling that void with a voice of reason and someone who is seriously looking for the solutions for this mess we’re creating with our excessive industrialization and consumer capitalism – AND writing proper thrillers with subtle messages – sounds like a very good idea to me.

Incidentally, the most read Finnish writer of the 21st century is called Ilkka Remes, who also writes (techno-)thrillers. Sometimes called the Tom Clancy of Finland (or Dan Brown or Clive Cussler, according to the time of the comparison), Remes started with an alternative history called Pääkallokehrääjä (Death’s-head Hawk Moth), where Finland is really a part of Soviet Union. Unfortunately Remes has since dropped off the excess baggage of SF and gone over to the Dark Side. Then again, he is only middlingly interesting as a writer, so no big lost, methinks.

But there’s more, much more. Like Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, who takes fantastical elements and makes so much more than just the sum of their parts. He writes magical realism, new weird, whatnot (he calls it “reaalifantasia”, which translates roughly as “”Realism Fantasy” – and when I say he calls it thus, he actually means that the use of Mainstream is not valid anymore and that all prose is more or less fantastical), but more accurately, beautiful, solid, interesting speculative fiction. His Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta (Lumikko and Nine Others) tells a story of Laura Lumikko, a beloved author of children’s books, who gathers together a group of nine kids and trains them writers of highest caliber. Years later, the canonical group gets its tenth member and the Great Game starts anew.

Jääskeläinen is so comfortable with his prose that it is almost scary. One of his greatest stregth lies with his grasp of dialogue, a serious problem with most writers, as contemporary speech patters of Finns is so far removed from the way Finnish is written. Words that sound all right while speaking are completely phoney and bogus when written down. Which in turn makes learning Finnish and subsequently speaking it to the natives a daunting task. “Minä” turns into “mä” (“I/me”), “ymmärrätkö?” turns into “tajuutsä?” (“do you understand?”) and “raitiotievaunu” turns into “spÃ¥ra” (“tram”) – I’m sure you appreciate and see the problem here.

Anne Leinonen is another great lyrical prosaist. You may remember her name from one of Tero’s earlier posts as the editor of Usva Magazine. Her first novels were collaborative efforts with Eija Lappalainen, but recently her first short story called Valkeita lankoja (White Threads) collection came out. It is a beaut, full of evocative little stories and tellings.

Yet another female writer, who originally burts into the scene a few years back, when she was only a toddler (or 14, who can remember?), is Viivi Hyvönen. Two fantasies written as a teen, she turned her focus on studies and became a doctor. And wrote a wonderful novel called Apina ja uusikuu (Ape and the New Moon), which is a wonderful story of love, a noir detective comedy and a surrealist fantasy at the same time. If I could choose just one book from the whole of recent sf-related Finnish novels and collections to be translated into English, this would be it. It is sure-handed, barocque, intertextual, complex, interesting, funny, sad, tragic, etc. It encompassed everything there is about simians in art, history, mythology and entertainments. Including the proverbial kitchen sink. You’d love it, dear Jeffster-fans, you’d really do.

I could mentions other names, like J. Pekka Mäkelä, who writes very interesting sf-novels, the latest being Nedut, a tale of the time after the ones we called Neanderthals (or Nedu for short) came home and wanted back the old grazing grounds. Sensawunda there and well executed. Then there’s Ilkka Auer, who has written a four-part fantasy series where both snow and Winter play extremely important roles. As we live in these northern latitudes (Helsinki is on the 60th degree and rest of Finland runs about 10 degrees north from that) we see – or in the case of Helsinki and my perspective, have seen – lot of snow during the Winter time. And while some other fantasy authors have used the same elements in their books, there is just something wrong in most of them. It’s the little things that bother someone who has born to run from the sauna to frozen lakes or to roll in snow and making angel wings. It’s like” Yeah, it’s snow and cold, but you wouldn’t actually act that way” etc.

Ilkka’s novels are basically YA-fantasy, which, like pretty much everywhere else, is the staple diet of publishing houses that brings in the money. Much of the current crop of new speculative fictionists are, in order to write sf, forced to write YA-stuff. Some do it anyway, with coercion, but I’d be willing to bet that there are quite a few budding authors and already published writers who’d just love to write adult fantasy or science fiction.

And how could I write all this and not mention Sari Peltoniemi. Not only would she be one of my all-time top persons of the world because of Pikkuveli (Little Brother), a song by a band called Noitalinna Huraa!, with lyrics by Sari Peltoniemi. The link leads to the Finnish National Broadcasting Corporation archives, where a rare live performance can be enjoyed. Sari is the singer and as the accompanying notes say, she “is shy and definitely without a shred of any rockstar mannerisms”. Her literary output is also geared toward the YA market, but I’d be more than a bit surprised if she would even be interested in writing only for adults. Her books are definitely accessible and easily read, but like Tove Jansson, the Giant of Finnish speculative fiction, not without merits and of interest to an adult reader.

And then, and then, but I guess I better stop here. I haven’t slept more than few hours this week (the City is trying to squeeze out every last drop of juice I have in my body before the weekend, and it is doing a bang-on job…) and I really must go to sleep now. But we have two more days to go! And Tero has been keeping up the appearances more than well all by himself.

3 comments on “Reading Finnish speculative fiction

  1. Thank you for this wonderful introduction to Finnish spec fic! I’m especially interested in how geography and the sense of place, as well as culture, play into SF from around the world. I wait for the day when the works you mention will be available in English and in other languages.

    Thanks again!


  2. jukkahoo says:

    One thing I forgot to mention (I bet there were more than just that one!) were the forests. Finland has a fair amout of trees. A lot, really. And for most of us, those forests are natural habitat, even for us city dwellers. Could be a bit different nowadays, though, but my generation (the 1960’s/70’s born) spent a sizable amout of our time on the woods.

    After these wanderings and general acquaintace with forests, reading stuff like Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood leaves you with a certain lack of understanding the implications of these mythical woodlands. It’s a forest? A big one? And? :)

    Then again, mountains. Wau. We don’t have those.

  3. Johanna Vainikainen-Uusitalo says:

    We had Robert Holdstock as GoH in Jyväskylä Summer Festival 1992 (pre-first Finncon in Jyväskylä). He was impressed with Finnish woods. We sang him Finnish folksongs…

    And Johanna Sinisalo lent her name to a magical mask in Holdstock’s “Celtika”:

    Now a second face suddenly became familiar to me, once I had seen through the rough-hew of its carving. Another old ‘friend’ from the early years, this one gentler.
    ‘Well, well. Sinisalo. You used to climb trees. Now you are one. You used to play tricks on me then run away like the wind. Now you’re rooted.’
    Sinisalo was the ‘eternal child in the land’. I myself had once been sinisalo. All of life’s creatures are sinisalo for a brief moment. The child’s power is usually left behind in the process of growth. But for some of us, that funny, frisky fawn always remains at the edge of our vision, to be summoned at will. The eternal child. Here she was, five thousand years on, a memory in carved birch.
    ‘Sinisalo,’ I whispered again, with affection, and blew a kiss.

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