Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review of Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction

From cyberpunk’s focus on near-future political and technological concerns to the explosion of singularity/post-human texts which followed a decade or two later, science fiction has moved from one end of the temporal spectrum to the other.  Cyberpunk generally more tactile, concrete, and relevant, post-humanism, by default, spends more of its time swimming in the waters of fantasy.  Though Charles Stross is best known for conveying just how wacky the far-future can be, there are other writers who capture the incredible possibilities of super-futures in intensely aesthetic fashion.  Hannu Rajaniemi is one, and his most recent collection Collected Fiction (2015, Tachyon) is one of the imaginative reasons why.  Whether or not Rajaniemi’s short fiction as a whole was ready to be collected, however, remains another question.

Rajaniemi has one minor collection under his belt (Words of Birth and Death, three stories), which essentially makes Collected Fiction his first.  Bringing together nearly all the short fiction he has published to date, it confirms the title while adding three pieces not previously published.  Totaling nineteen stories, none stretch into novella length; all are bite-sized vignettes of radically technical futures with a dash of mythic/pagan-ized fantasy.

“Deus Ex Homine” (translated to ‘god from man’) sets the post-human tone for Collected Fiction. 

“As gods go, I wasn’t one of the holier-than-thou, dying-for-your-sins variety. I was a full-blown transhuman deity with a liquid metal body, an external brain, clouds of self-replicating utility fog to do my bidding and a recursively self-improving AI slaved to my volition. I could do anything I wanted. I wasn’t Jesus, I was Superman: an evil Bizarro Superman.”(1)

Also Rajaniemi’s first published story, it tells of a man and woman separated by a godplague—an intrusion of post-humanism that destroyed the man’s corporeal humanity (he requires a head implant to tell him others’ emotional projections) and subsequently the relationship.  The emotions are a bit forced, but informs the reader of the type of story to come.  Following this story is perhaps Rajaniemi’s most celebrated short to date: “The Server and the Dragon.”  A far-far-far future story of abstract dimension worthy of Iain Banks’ Excession, it’s about a world seeding by an AI computer that possesses significantly more mythic ambiance than hard sf.  Mother Goose on post-human steroids, “Tyche and the Ants” is about a young girl cavorting on a fairy tale lunar landscape.  But it isn’t before running into the Jade Rabbit, Moon Girl, Hugbear, and the Brain AI that she meets the miscreant little “ants”.  This is the first ever post-human bedtime story for children I have ever read, and perhaps the best of this collection.

Rajaniemi apparently having attended the school of writing that purports all short stories must lead with a catchy line, nearly every piece in Collected Fiction opens on a bizarre sentence (that only sometimes fulfills itself).  Before the concert, we steal the master’s head” is the opening of “His Master’s Voice”.  Not a take on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, the story is about a technologically souped up dog and his equally styling partner, a cat, who attempt to rescue their owner from behind a supposedly impenetrable firewall.  “Elegy for a Young Elk” is a vibrant, colorful story that exists between native life in the woods and the flashest, most cyberpunk city one can think of.  Mythical quantum mechanics, it is the story of man living in a computer generated environment (I think) and the quest he is sent on to the city by an ex-girlfriend.  The plot escalating exponentially, the ending closes a circle, but seeming one of far too great imaginative circumference for the length of the story.  Would love to see this in novella length.  “Invisible Planets” is a conversation between a generation starship and one of its sub-minds about the planets it passes and “The Jugaad Cathedral” is about a guy who plays a game similar to Minecraft called Dwarfcraft.  Using an application called Frendipity to learn more about another person he plays with, he helps build a virtual Cathedral.  Mixing hard sf with gaming, the guy is in for a surprise when he actually meets her. 

But beyond hard/far future sf, there is another vein to Collected Fiction: outright fantasy.  “Fisher of Men” is the story of a man living in a remote cabin on the Finnish coast who is enticed by a mer-woman under the sea where a battle for love ensues.  “The Viper Blanket” is about a pagan cult revived in modern times, just managing a slight chill in the spine.

Of the stories original to collection, the first is “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB.”  About a woman who met her astronaut husband while making his suit, when he dies in space and the suit comes back to live with her, she makes a special decision. The second original is “Ghost Dogs” and is not much more than the title indicates.  And the third story is “Skywalker of Earth”.  Also the longest of the collection, it shows scattered focus, limited coherency, but a purpose that doesn’t reveal itself quickly.  All in all, the three originals feel more like rejected material resurrected for the collection rather than quality stories worthy of publishing.

As mentioned in the intro, I remain unsure it was the best move to bring together all of Rajaniemi’s short fiction at this time, not to mention the never-before-published stories.  Instead of “here is a selection of quality stories from a writer who has established himself in the field”, the reader is presented with “regardless of quality, here is nearly everything Rajaniemi, a budding sf writer,  has published to date”.  If this were a retrospective of someone like Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance, or Theodore Sturgeon who has a long career fans may not be entirely familiar with, it would be understandable to publish everything from the beginning of their careers.  But for an up and coming writer, one who has seen some success but has yet to fully establish himself, it means that a lot of the stories feature an author still trying to find their voice.

This feeling-out translates into a couple problem areas.  One is the lack of human elements. I don’t mean the spirit or intentions of humanity, rather the subtle realities that flesh out a story to make the characters and emotions concrete.  In stories like “His Master’s Voice” or “The Server and the Dragon”, this is not an issue: it is only a question of how colorful Rajaniemi’s imagination can be.  But for stories like “Deus ex Homine”, “Topsight”, “The Jugaad Cathedral”, or “Shibuya, No Love,” human interest forms the core of the story, and in order for the reader to develop full empathy, particularized aspects of existence must be present.  In the case of these stories, however, they are usually glazed over—the plot moving forward, but the characters not developed in rich, convincing style. 

A second issue is a lack of self-awareness regarding tone.  At times overly ambitious linguistically, Collected Fiction can be awkward. “The Server and the Dragon” and “Tyche and the Ants” explode off the page, but again, the non-far-far-future stories with relatively modern humans at their center sometimes show a similar bombasticism of language that doesn’t match the type of story attempting to be told.  “The Jugaad Cathedral,” for example, is, amongst other things, attempting to be a touching piece of fiction about overcoming odds.  Rajaniemi puts the story pieces in their correct places to achieve this, but due to lack of tone, fails to develop a full sense of emotion or empathy with the sub-narrative voice.  All in all, the range of language in the collection varies nicely on a word by word basis, but the variety is indiscriminate and not always tailored to the story.

In the end, Collected Fiction is not a lie.  Bringing together almost every short Rajaniemi has published to date, plus a couple extras previously unpublished, it does what the title indicates.  And sometimes it goes beyond, presenting a few of the author’s paintball, far-future specials.  But was the collection brought out to quickly?  I think, yes.  Certainly there are a couple of stories key to the far-future movement of sf in the past decade, and there are a couple other intriguing selections which interest and give the collection its value.  But at the same time, the overall quality suffers for having everything indiscreetly thrown into the same pot.  The editors seemingly aware of this, the stronger stories are grouped closer to the front, the rear just hanging on.  Were it me, I would have waited a couple of years until Rajaniemi had a few additional good, quality shorts under his belt, then published—not a “Collected Fiction,” but something with a snappier title that really captures the truly colorful and vividness of his imagination.  If what exists in Collected Fiction is any indication, those stories will come.

Published between 2004 and 2015, the following is the table of contents for Collected Fictions:

Deus Ex Homine
The Server and the Dragon
Tyche and the Ants
The Haunting of Apollo A7LB
His Master’s Voice
Elegy for a Young Elk
The Jugaad Cathedral
Fisher of Men
Invisible Planets (with apologies to Italo Calvino)
The Viper Blanket
Ghost Dogs
Paris, in Love
The Oldest Game
Shibuya no Love
Satan’s Typist
Skywalker of Earth
Snow White Is Dead
Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jesse, I have read part of your post, the first half or so because I haven't finished the book and didn't want to read spoilers of the stories I havent't read yet. I think you misinterpreted some details in the plots or situation of some of the stories, or perhaps it was me who did. They are:

    1) On the first story you comment "...a godplague—an intrusion of post-humanism that destroyed the man’s corporeal humanity (he requires a head implant to tell him others’ emotional projections)". The man's corporeal humanity is not actually destroyed, some people become "gods" (men with superpowers, physical men, using AI, nanobots, etc) by hacking and exploiting a leakage in the source code of a (good-intentioned) Superintelligence, and the brain damage of the protagonist, that makes him need an implant, was actually caused when the Superintelligence rescued him from his "god-like" condition, having to intervene areas of his brain to achieve this.

    2) In “Elegy for a Young Elk”, you say "it is the story of man living in a computer generated environment", I think this is wrong, at some points in the story it is made clear the wood environment is real (the bear may be able to talk and think through AI-aided genetic engineering for instance); then on entering the city everything gets upside-down, that's a real/virtual environment created by a Superintelligence along with a child's mind.

    3) In “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB.”, you write "About a woman who met her astronaut husband while making his suit", well, the astronaut was not her husband but her lover!

    Anyway, Rajaniemi's stories are often open to interpretation, not everything is explicitly exposed, consciousness goes in and out virtual and real environments continually, and they demand much effort from the reader to make sense of the plot and the different situations and scenes.