8 May 2015
Review: Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction
Tachyon Publications, 19 May 2015
HB, 240 pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have a preview copy of this book from Netgalley.
I'd previously read Rajaniemi's three Jean le Flambeur novels, but I was aware that he'd also written short stories so - now that Flambeur is completed - it was good to see these collected and have an opportunity to explore what else this writer has done.
They are impressively wide ranging. While some cover similar territory to the novels - far future advanced tech transcending any division between "real" and "artificial" intelligence, others explore horror, the supernatural and even fairytales. There are also a couple of experiments in writing, including a story in blocks that can be read in different orders (these were originally selected for the reader via a brain activity monitor) and a collection of Twitter sized "microstories".
Far from being mere expositions of technological futures or other tropes, the writing, as a whole, display a real facility for developing and conveying characters. For example, "Deus ex Homine" is set in a near future where an AI plague can give people godlike powers and the urge to express these capriciously. While a war rages against the "godplague", love and desire still flourish among both changed and unchanged humans. "Elegy for a Young Elk" shares this background, I think, developing the theme of humanity and human-ness continuing in an apparently alien setting. "The Server and the Dragon" is another beautiful, if sad, story that explores what happens when a self-aware but lonely relay beacon makes a fried.
Other stories have something of a fairytale atmosphere, for example "Tyche and the Ants" which focuses on a young girl growing up on a moonbase surrounded by a crowd of imaginary (?) friends. The titular "ants" - metallic, robot intruders - disturb this life, forcing her to grow up very quickly. And "His Master's Voice" follows an intelligent self-aware pair of animals - a dog and cat - whose master has been imprisoned. Apart from the pun in the title - the dog has a singing career and name which echo the famous HMV logo - the story is played straight, and Rajaniemi manages to make both animals authentically animal but also more, reflecting the enhancements and changes that have been applied to them. "The Jugand Cathedral" is another markedly SF story, but like the others in this volume, it has real heart, exploring how restrictions on the use of technology to help a woman with disabilities might be creatively flouted.
"The Haunting of Apollo A7LB" is either a ghost story, or science fiction, or probably both. Apollo A7LB is a space suit displayed in a museum, and it seems that it's not as empty as you'd think.
"Ghost Dogs" is, as the title suggests, very much another ghost story but it's left teasingly unclear who the ghosts are and what has produced them
"Fisher of Men" is a haunting yet satisfying story drawing on Finnish myth (as do a number of the others in the collection - an interesting contrast to the stark futurism of the three novels). "The Viper Blanket" is another in the same vein, as is "The Oldest Game" which describes what happens when a young man, running from trouble, seeks death.
"Invisible" Planets, inspired by Italo Calvino, is composed of tales, fragments of descriptions of varied worlds collected by a "darkship" on its travels. Why, and what they amount to, only becomes clear when the ship itself interrogates its memories and allows them to transform it.
"Paris, In Love" is simply a delightful love story - in which the City of Love herself falls for a young man. Not an admirer you would want to spurn, or provoke to jealousy. Rajaniemi handles this idea brilliantly, making what happens both weirdly improbably and deeply believable at the same time.
Those are just some of the highlights of this volume. Impressive in both its range and sympathy, it's also - where required - devastatingly hard in its SF. The stories stand up in themselves and are extremely readable, yet it also serves as a dazzling introduction to the author's range and capabilities.