Finnish Science Fiction and Fantasy: Johanna Sinisalo, Hannu Rajaniemi, and Moomins
Recently, my wife Ann and I flew to Finland for seven days of lectures, workshops, and other presentations at various universities and writer organizations. The trip was made possible by a travel grant from the Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI), in conjunction with the largesse of the Finnish science fiction/fantasy community. Ann shared her expertise as the Hugo Award-winning editor of Weird Tales and I shared my experiences and knowledge as a writer for the past twenty-five years. We stayed at people’s houses for the most part and traveled by train across the country, visiting not just Helsinki but Turku, Jyväskylä, Tampere, and Espo.
These were energizing opportunities, in a variety of ways—as Ann notes, the benefit of such trips often isn't just the information received, on both sides, “but the long-lasting connections developed with like-minded people.” Particularly memorable for both of us was, as Ann says, “our own private tour of the Moominvalley museum in Tampere by two sisters involved in the science fiction community, Karoliina and Marianna Leikomaa. We got to see Tove Jansson's iconic creation through their eyes, their experiences encountering the Moomin books and comics as children and as adults.”
We had many more, invaluable opportunities to talk to brilliant people in the arts in Finland, a country that truly values its creative people. Science fiction and fantasy conventions receive arts council funding, as do some magazines. The supporting community is well-organized, experienced, and generous—the large size and brilliance of the annual Finncon organized by this community speaks volumes.
Among the people we spoke to was editor, writer, and taste-maker Jukka Halme, the mastermind behind a Finnish New Weird anthology and Eurocon’s fan guest of honor this year. According to Halme, the success of the SF/fantasy community in Finland is based on the ability to organize large conferences and being “very aware of the fact that the language group we have is a small one, so we need to pull together.” University support is also very important—many feel that the modern subculture first started among students attending the University of Turku.
Supported by that community, a number of unique Finnish writers are appearing on the scene—several of whom have been or will soon be translated into English. Two of the most prominent for readers in English this year are Johanna Sinisalo and Hannu Rajaniemi, both of whom, Halme notes, hail from small villages in northern Finland.
Sinisalo, whose Birdbrain was published this April in the U.S., is a well-known figure in Finland, where she’s written teleplays, screenplays, and been involved in a stunning number of different creative projects. Including Birdbrain on my top 10 fantasy novels list for Locus Online, I wrote, “This slow-burn of a novel relates the story of Finns Jyrki and Heidi as they hike through the wilderness of Tasmania and New Zealand. Sinisalo immerses the reader in the physicality of the trek, and the increasing isolation of the hikers…the atmosphere created is exciting and the trip fascinating to watch play out. When the fantastical element finally enters the story it’s all the more effective because of the careful way in which Sinisalo has brought the reader to that point.”
Rajaniemi is a new writer whose first novel The Quantum Thief has taken the United Kingdom by storm. Described as “a crazy joyride through the solar system several centuries hence,” the novel is published this month by Tor, amid excited buzz. Halme told me that the novel has been just as popular in Finland as in the U.K., and gained a lot of legitimacy for science fiction in his country. Indeed, Rajaniemi wrote his novel in English, meaning it had to be translated into Finnish for publication in his home country. Although not many Finnish authors do self-translate, most do read in English, as it is a widely used language.
As to the relationship of science fiction and fantasy to other kinds of fiction in Finland, Sinisalo told me that “Some years ago it seemed that in Finland a book still had to be realistic to be considered as "real" literature. But for some time there have been books with touches of magical realism, horror-laced stories and even some new weird style books on bestseller lists and getting important awards. The Finnish SF/F scene is very active and very fresh, as it has been for decades.” This was certainly our impression as we traveled around Finland—there was a real sense of excitement and of energy.”
In the video above, I talk with Halme about Sinisalo and Rajaniemi, as well as the Finnish SF/Fantasy community, “Finnish magic realism,” wilderness themes in Finnish fiction, and much more. (A reference to “Basic Finns” is a joke about the “True Finns” party and meant ironically.)
Next Week: Part 2 of the video as part of a more extensive look at Finnish SF/Fantasy including contributions from iconic Finnish writer Leena Krohn, Toni Jerrman, the legendary editor of leading SF/F magazine Tähtivaeltaja, blogger Tero Ykspetäjä, award-winning children’s book author Sari Peltoniemi, and cross-genre writers Viivi Hyvönen, Anne Leinonen, and Saara Henriksson.