I first came cross Hannu Rajaniemi when I read the story ‘His Master’s Voice’ in ‘Interzone’. I remember being struck by its original voice and intriguing ideas, as well as the fact that the protagonists were a dog and a cat. His name, being quite memorable, stuck with me so when his first novel ‘The Quantum Thief’ was released, I was keen to get hold of it, as were a huge number of other people. It says something for his popularity, subsequent to the publication of the ‘Jean De Flambeur’ trilogy, that Gollancz are releasing a short story collection by him. Single author collections are very rarely produced by the big publishers now, unless they are by a big author and that normally entails a very long career behind them and a large number of novels to support the investment.
There are around twenty stories in this collection, many of them hard Science Fiction of the kind Hannu Rajaniemi has become renowned for. Several of them have ingredients in common with ‘The Quantum Thief, though not necessarily an obvious link in terms of setting or timeline. Surprisingly to me, there are also several stories more along the line of mythical fantasy tales with a basis in what I assume is Finnish mythology. I won’t comment on all of the stories here, but I’ll mention a few I particularly enjoyed.
‘Deus ex Homine’ features Jukka, a man previously infected by the godplague and now cured and living a less-than-full life. In this post-cyberpunk setting, where technology and biology have merged in new and freakish ways and there is talk of war against the resulting monstrosities, this story tells the initially mundane tale of a family reunion. Jukka’s condition leaves him unable to read emotions or facial cues, so the story is peppered with hints from his symbiote telling him how others are feeling. This gives an interesting extra element to a story with an intriguing background.
A young girl is the eponymous narrator of ‘Tyche And The Ants’, who lives alone on the Moon, accompanied only by her automated carers and a host of imaginary friends. At least, we assume they are imaginary. Why she is there and what happened to her parents don’t seem as important or as interesting as the adventures she gets up to and her interaction with the technology that keep her alive.
While heading off into interstellar space, an ancient ship dreams of ‘Invisible Planets’ that it is not sure of ever having visited. Vignettes describing a selection of fabulous planets and their populations and societies are interspersed with the ship’s introspections and make a wonderful montage of a story. Each of the invisible planets could be the setting of a great story in itself, but even these small snippets add up to a tale that is more than the sum of its parts.
‘Topsight’ takes us to the near future of ubiquitous technology, all-pervasive social media and a world teetering on the edge of environmental and social breakdown. Like the characters in several of the stories, Kuovi is in a state of turmoil. In this case, over the death of a friend and the tale weaves together technological advances with traditional beliefs and customs to show that human nature continues no matter how society gradually changes around us.
The longest story of the collection is the previously unpublished ‘Skywalker Of Earth’ which weaves together high-concept physics with American paranoia and Golden Age Science Fiction imagery. It was great fun to read, set out in chapters with retro-sounding titles and featuring brass knobs, a well-stocked library and cups of tea along with particle physics and the NSA. The pages fairly ooze enjoyment at the sheer bravado of this concoction and the on-going escalation of threats brought against the planet as two 1920s scientists continue a long-running feud with the aid of advanced alien technology. I think this is my favourite of the book.
‘Snow White Is Dead’ is a modern version of ‘Snow White’, which is the kind of thing that doesn’t normally appeal to me but, in this case, it is the transcript of a neurofiction literary experiment and therefore far more intriguing. There’s an introduction to explain the concept, but it is basically a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story where the choices are made based on neurological responses of the reader who, in the original presentation, would be wired up to a computer and reading on-screen. Reading this version in the book is not the same experience but the format makes it a great concept.
As you’ll have seen from this brief summary, it’s the Science Fiction stories I like, the kind of high-concept ideas that attracted me to Hannu Rajaniemi’s ‘Jean Le Flambeur’ books. The fantasy/fable stories included in this volume were a surprise as well as a bit of a disappointment for me. Not that they were bad stories, but they’re not what I was looking for. I only read Science Fiction and that’s what I was expecting from the name. It’s a great collection though for showcasing Hannu Rajaniemi’s style and ingenuity and offers a lot to give the brain a treat.
Gareth D. Jones
(pub: Gollancz. 242 page enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-1-473-21055-6)
302 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08165-9)