Finnish SF and Fantasy: An Established Community, a Surge of Talent
This is the conclusion of a two-part feature on Finnish SF/Fantasy. In April, my wife Ann and I flew to Finland for seven days of lectures, workshops, and other presentations at various universities and writer organizations across the country. 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. You can read Part 1 here.
SF/Fantasy by Finnish writers is hot this year, with two major titles now out in the U.S. that capture the range and complexity of the current scene: Birdbrain by Johanna Sinisalo and The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. But visiting Finland meant having a chance to delve a little deeper, an opportunity to catch tantalizing glimpses of a rich and vibrant SF/fantasy tradition in which the distinctions between genre and literary fiction seem less and less important.
A Golden Age for Cross-Genre Finnish SF/F?
Indeed, novelist and short story writer Anne Leinonen believes “Finnish science fiction and fantasy is living its golden age. In this millennia, the number of writers has significantly risen, as well as general respect toward the genre…Copying Anglo-American ideas or styles [isn’t as common], with the use of local and national elements becoming a natural part of storytelling. The borders have blurred, bringing new methods, ways, forms of expression to our literature.”
As editor-critic Jukka Halme notes in the video above, even one of Finland’s most lauded mainstream writers, Leena Krohn, writes fantasy, despite not being categorized as a fantasy writer. Krohn, a thoughtful woman with a sharp sense of humor, will be familiar to English-language readers primarily through the Kafka-esque Tainaron: Mail From Another City. Tainaron is, in our opinion, one of the finest works of weird fiction published in the last twenty years—and yet frustratingly enough most of Krohn’s books have yet to be translated into English.
A Trio of Tantalizing Glimpses
Tantalizing glimpses during our trip also meant getting to read English-language snippets from novels not yet translated—for example, Sari Peltoniemi’s The Elk (read an excerpt online), which opens with the wonderfully mysterious lines “I am the Bat and I have the Raven’s quill,” and features Ursula, a king’s daughter. Ursula’s contradictory personality and complex relationship with her father are portrayed with great clarity and empathy.
A successful children’s author in Finland, Peltoniemi is a former rock star whose award-winning novels often deal with the weakest, most vulnerable members of society, people upon whose lives myth and fantasy begin to encroach. Peltoniemi says she “writes about universal matters. A reviewer wrote, for example, that if books went to a bar together, my novel The Scale would go there with Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.” Her latest is Kissataksi (Cat Taxi)—the title an homage to Miyazaki—which tells the story of eight-year-old Juho “who meets seven strange cats and their sad mistress.” Considering that Peltoniemi hails from the same country identified with iconic children’s author Tove Jansson, it seems odd that Peltoniemi’s books haven’t been translated into English.
We also had a chance to sample Vivii Hyvönen’s The Monkey and the New Moon, which is set in “the permanently quarantined city of Dystopolis between an unnavigable, poisonous ocean and an impassable dump inhabited by frenzied monkeys.” Categorized as New Weird, the novel’s two biggest influences are, according to the author “Dracula by Bram Stoker and Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg,” combining the epistolary impulse in the former with the thriller aspects of the latter while throwing in the “influence of several movies with artificial realities that their inhabitants are unaware of.” Based on our readings, we wouldn’t bet against Hyvönen being the next Finnish writer to break out and find a substantial US/UK audience, a la Hannu Rajaniemi and his The Quantum Thief.
Equally interesting, but in a totally different way, the just-published Moby Doll by first-time novelist Saara Henriksson sports an evocative cover that smartly conveys the premise. Moby Doll is about a whale and a young woman, and the man that is looking for her. Jenny, seeking to re-discover a childhood song, travels north of Norway to find it in whale-song. As the author says, “Moby Doll is about obsession and reaching for the impossible, but also about music and the power of communication. One of the characters is a talking white whale, an all-seeing, all-hearing ancient being.” Henriksson eschews easy labels, placing her work in the continuum of “Scandinavian speculative fiction, ranging from Risto Isomäki to Peter Hoeg…I tend to think of it as belonging somewhere alongside ‘mainstream’ fiction’—almost mainstream but not quite.” Conceptually, Moby Doll should be an easy pitch to UK/US publishers.
A Groundswell of Energy
In encountering so many fascinating authors, we wondered if it was just our outsider’s impression that a wealth of quality material was being published in Finland. However, experts from the community seem to agree. Literary critic Irma Hirsjärvi cites the near-heroic level of activity by Finnish SF/Fantasy fandom in a paper on Finnish SF as a contributing factor, while Partial Recall blogger Tero Ykspetäjä points out the diversity: “At the moment, I think there’s quite a spectrum of different stories published—from hard SF to the traditional yarns of the new pulp people to the almost-mimetic fiction of the realfantastik movement, and everything in between.”
The legendary Toni Jerrman, editor of the iconic Finnish SF/Fantasy magazine Tähtivaeltaja (“Star Wanderer”), calls the scene “Very much alive and flourishing. New writers seem to pop up from everywhere. And quite a few of them are really good and original.” In particular, Jerrman says, “the big publishing houses are nowadays getting interested in Finnish speculative fiction, a happy improvement. More and more books are coming out every year, and some of them even win awards, like Tiina Raevaara’s fabulous short story collection ‘En tunne sinua vierellani,’ which just won the prestigious Runeberg Award.” Having sampled her intelligent, often breathtaking stories, we’re certain that Raevaara is a safe bet for eventual book-length translation.
In addition to publishing the work of Finnish authors, Tähtivaeltaja, omnivorous in its tastes and definitely punk in its approach, has been instrumental in introducing Finnish readers to English-language writers. For example, the magazine introduced Philip K. Dick to Finns in 1987, after which he became the most translated science fiction author in Finland. Its blanket approach to coverage—reviewing anime, manga, fiction, movies, and more—has made it a nexus for cross-genre influence and a kind of cultural clearinghouse for the SF/Fantasy community.
Issues of Translation
While influence is a two-way exchange, issues of translation are definitely unequal. Many Finns read in English, but most Americans can’t read Finnish. Saara Henriksson’s Moby Doll might have the kind of concept that lends itself to immediate rapport with an English-language reader in a synopsis, but many novels can’t be reduced down to a concept in a meaningful way: they must be experienced in their totality, from page one to the end.
Intriguing titles we couldn’t sample include Anne Leinonen’s latest novel Routasisarukset (The Frost Children)—a collaboration with Eija Lappalainen—which was just published in Finland. It is a dystopic exploration of “individual liberties, constricting power structures, and the possibilities of biotechnology” as seen through the eyes of Utu, a young woman who has “a strange ability to understand ancient abandoned machines.” Over tar ice cream before an event at the Writer’s House in the city of Jyväskylä, Leinonen also told us about another, Kafkaesque novel of hers that sounded even more delicious than what we were eating.
But there are countless other examples of enticement. For example, we love the work of Jyrki Vainonen that we’ve read, including “The Pearl.” His work has a streak of the surreal and the dark that we find irresistible, but the majority of his work remains elusive to English-language readers. Other writers recommended to us include Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, M.G. Soikkeli, J. Pekka Makela, Essi Kummu, Siri Kolu, Miina Supinen, Jukka Laajarinne, Katja Salminen, Maarit Verronen, and Marko Hautala, so clearly we have more literary investigations to undertake.
Other factors can come into play, too. Some writers are harder to translate than others. Boris Hurtta is considered by many the preeminent horror writer in Finland, but we were told by Halme and others that the idiosyncratic qualities of his at times baroque style can make story translation an arduous and demanding process. Yet he’s clearly a favorite of Halme, and of Finnish writer, reviewer, and radio personality Hannu Blommila: “What I find compelling about Hurtta is his sheer versatility. He has written dark fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, delightfully pulpy adventure tales, and even some Splatterpunk. A very prolific writer and avid bibliophile with a deep knowledge of older and rather obscure Finnish titles of fantasy and adventure. To my mind, his own work juxtaposes beautifully both Finnish literary and old pulp traditions.”
We met Hurtta on our trip to Finland, and he noted that his fiction often features book collectors, strange books, and all the other arcana of a certain brand of weird fiction, with one story entitled “The Revenge of the Bibliomaniac.” The opening of another story, “A Diseased Man,” gives a sense of Hurtta at the sentence level: “As a man, Kaarlo Huovinen was like a slab of concrete discarded on a building site: strong and unyielding, but by now crumbling around the edges and riddled with hairline cracks.” “A Diseased Man” can be found in The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, edited by Johanna Sinisalo and translated by David Hackston, along with many others mentioned in this feature.
Right now, many of these writers remain just tantalizing possibilities for English-language readers, but it may not remain that way for long. We can’t be certain which of these Finnish writers you’ll be reading in the future, but we are certain you’ll come to know many of their names much better very soon.