A Blend of Myth and Post-Humanism: A Review of Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction

Hannu Rajaniemi is a Finnish sci-fi writer who is best known for his Jean le Flambeur series, the first book of which is The Quantum Thief. The series is known for its take on a post-human society, where people are not confined to single bodies and are capable of living forever. I’ve only read the first book of this series, but I enjoyed it, and in a bid to get better at short story writing myself, I decided I would read his short story work.

Many of the stories in this collection present similar post-human worlds. Stories like “Deus Ex Homine” and “Elegy for a Young Elk” explore ideas of family in a post-human world, specifically focusing on the idea of parents struggling to understand their children who have become god-like figures. “His Master’s Voice” is also a fun heist story where a dog and a cat of augmented intelligence and ability team up to save their master from prison.

But not all of Rajaniemi’s tales in this collection are sci-fi. It is clear from his work that he is also a fan of mythology, and several of his stories prominently feature Finnish mythological figures. For instance, “Fisher of Men” is about a mermaid who was slighted by a man and so ensnares men in her net, tying them to her. Tuoni, a Finnish god of the underworld, appears in this story and several others. One of my favorite stories in the collection, “Tyche and the Ants”, combines mythology and technology. It shows a future where a young girl has hidden out on the moon to escape persecution on Earth, and she has created friends who are based on characters from (I believe) Japanese mythology.

The collection wraps up with two tales that explore story telling in new media. The first is “Snow White is Dead”, which was part of a Neurofiction project by Rajaniemi and Samuel Halliday. The idea is that, with the help of some special software, the story will respond to a reader’s thoughts and emotions, and the hardware will adapt the endings based on what the signal the reader is giving off. Of course the book doesn’t come with this hardware, so in the printed version Rajaniemi shares some of the popular sections that the device generate.

The final piece, “Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories”, were a smattering of Twitter stories that Rajaniemi put together. Some feature Imhotep Austin, a time-traveling mummy and hard boiled detective. Honestly I hope that this character one day gets his own full length novel. While I felt these tales were a bit disjointed, as might be expected given the format, it was interesting to see someone tackling story telling with a 140 character limit.

I also wanted to highlight two stories that really stood out to me, but that are less grandiose than some of the other tales in the collection. The first is “Shibuya, no Love”. In this setting there is a device called a lovegety which creates a kind of instantaneous romantic narrative with other users, letting people meet very quickly. As an avid daydreamer I found this story and the hypothetical technology very interesting and the story of generating a narrative with someone basically ahead of time definitely resonated with me.

The second story I wanted to touch on is “Paris, in Love”. There are a lot of famous stories about people who fall in love with cities, but in this story the city of Paris actually falls in love with a Finnish man who comes to visit. I thought this was a really interesting take on that trope and very well done.

Overall I really enjoyed this collection, and I think it’s a great set of short fiction. Rajaniemi has some really interesting ideas of what the future will look like, but I think his attachment to mythology makes the futuristic worlds he creates very grounded in themes and ideas that are still relatable. If you’ve read Rajaniemi’s novels, then I certainly think you’ll enjoy this, and if you’re just looking for a great collection of short stories, I would recommend this as well.

Short Story Sunday: Pimpf

Today I’m sharing something more comedic for your Sunday reading pleasure. “Pimpf“, by Charles Stross, is a short story featuring Bob Howard and other characters from Stross’ series The Laundry Files. The Laundry is a secret organization in England that protects the world from supernatural and demonic threats. In this particular story, Howard is monitoring mods to the MMORPG Neverwinter Nights that might lead to demons finding their way into our world through glitches in the programming math.

“Pimpf” is a very funny and fast paced short story that was attached to the end of the second The Laundry Files book The Jennifer Morgue. Bringing together video game culture, a secret agency, and Cthulhu demons is a great mash-up, and the tone of the narrator ties it together in a great way. This is the first time I’ve ever read anything by Stross, and though it’s set in an existing series, I didn’t feel lost at what was going on. And now that I’ve read this story, I’m certainly tempted to read more of his work…

Quantumly Connected: A Review of Entangled

I love a good space opera, so I was curious when I heard about Entangled. It is about a girl named Cade who is quantum entangled (connected at a molecular level) to a boy named Xan. The pair were separated at a young age by the scientists who created them, and Cade has grown up never knowing Xan or that she even had a past. Then one day she feels a mental connection to him that stretches across light years and calls her to him. But of course there is danger. Quantum entanglement is the key to allowing humans to travel across the stars without getting “space sick”, and there are alien races who aren’t too fond of that idea. This is the groundwork for the fun adventure that Capetta weaves together.

I liked the tonal quality of the story, at least initially, and after reading a sample of the book it’s what drew me in and got me on board with buying it. I’m a little tired of the first person POV stories that we tend to get in YA, and I liked that this was third person. Not only that, I liked that Capetta inflected the writing with some style that gave the book a distinct feel. I will say that as the story went on the heavy use of music analogies got a little tiresome for me, but it still fit with Cade as a character, and in some instances it actually served to describe the state of Cade’s entanglement and her ability to connect with other beings very well.

However, the worst stylistic choice in the story was the swearing. I’m personally of the opinion that you should use real fucking curse words or not include swearing in your story. I hated “frak” from Battlestar Galactica, and the go to curse of “snug” or “snugging” in this story is even worse. It conveys nothing, sounds silly, and basically took me out of the narrative flow every time I saw it.

I also thought the characters were pretty strong. I liked that Cade has several shipmates who are also human women. I feel like space opera is a genre largely dominated by male protagonists, or in cases where there are female protagonists they are sort of the “strong woman in a man’s world” type. Cade is a female lead with female friends, which was a nice change from that sort of thing.

As far as world building, I liked that there were many alien races that appeared in the story, and for me that made the setting feel expansive. However, all in all, we really don’t see too much of the world in this book. Almost the entire story takes place on a spaceship. This didn’t bother me for this story, but this is a three book series, so I’m hoping that in future novels we get to explore a little more of the planets in this setting.

One thing I also liked about the book was how it ended. But if you’re not interested in SPOILERS, you should stop reading here…

Still going?

Okay, so when I read the initial premise of the book I was really worried that Cade would end up with Xan. It felt a lot like the typical YA “destined to be together romance” that I’m really not a huge fan of. But I liked the book stylistically early on, and it wasn’t very long, so I figured I’d give at least the first book in this series a shot. And I was rewarded.

Cade does not end up with Xan. And in fact I don’t think she can in future books, since he ends up more or less dead (though I won’t go into how). I thought it was great that Capetta avoided this expected cliche finish and instead offered a more compelling end to the first volume wherein Cade chooses not to be with Xan at all, though this decision also costs her, and I’ll be curious to see how that plays out in future volumes.

All-in-all I thought that Entangled was an enjoyable read for anyone who likes a good old fashioned, romping, space opera adventure. If you’re looking for something that explores new scientific ideas or pushes genre envelopes, then this book isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for something fun, then I can certainly recommend this.

Short Story Sunday: Drive

In December The Expanse will be premiering on Syfy channel. Based on the space opera series by James S.A. Corey (a pen name for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), the story takes place in a future where Earth, Mars, and The Belt all fight for control of the solar system.

As part of the promotions for the show, Corey recently released a short story entitled “Drive” about the life of Solomon Epstein, the man who creates the Epstein Drive. This story takes place before the colonization of the belt and shows some of the tension that already existed between Earth and Mars, as the Martian colony began to break away from its home planet. It’s a great read that fills in some of the history of the setting and shows the development of technologies used in the primary series.

BONUS SECTION:

There was also a new trailer released for The Expanse at San Diego Comic Con. If you need more reasons to get excited for the show, check it out.

Separate and New Works from the Creators of Avatar

The co-creators of the hugely popular animated shows Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra announced their upcoming projects earlier this week. The duo is not collaborating, at least for the moment, and each is creating his own new story. These stories will also be novels and graphic novels rather than a TV series or film. However, both are still fantasy tales targeted primarily at a Young Adult audience.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Bryan Konietzko revealed that he is working on a graphic novel series titled Threadworlds. It is a sci-fi story set on a planet that shares an orbit around its sun with four other worlds. The protagonist, Nova, is a young girl who enjoys science and wants to explore the secrets of her universe. While the story will of course feature action and adventure, Konietzko does hope that it will inspire girls who are passionate about science to stick with it.

The first pieces of art that have been revealed are beautiful, as to be expected. The primary race also appear to be non-human, something that I think is easier to portray in a visual format. I also like graphic novels that take full advantage of the medium by showcasing things that can’t effectively be described in a traditional novel, and it looks like Threadworlds will do just that.

The first installment of the story is set to release in 2017, which is a ways away, but at least it’s something to look forward to.

Michael DiMartino will actually be working on a traditional novel series, though he says that it will also contain some art. The series is called Geniuses, and it is set in a fantasy world similar to Renaissance Italy where art is magic, and gifted artists are protected by a living muse known as a genius. However, the ruler of the world thinks that geniuses are a threat, and he is attempting to destroy them. The protagonist, Giacomo, must work in a secret studio where he can learn to harness the magical power of his genius.

This sounds very similar to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials setting in a lot of ways, though with more of a focus on the concept of art as magic rather than on any kind of religious statement. I’m hoping that the details of the world will create more distinctions between the two settings, but I do like the idea of the magic system, which feels very unique.

DiMartino said that he wanted to write a story with an artist hero because he found very few fictional stories with an artist as the protagonist. So while his co-creator looks to inspire future scientists, DiMartino appears to want to inspire fledgling artists by giving them a world and a story where someone who shares their interests is the hero.

The first book in the Geniuses series, The Creature and the Creator, will be released in the fall of 2016, a little over a year from now.

The Shows I’m Watching and You Should Too: Humans

I know, I know, more TV shows and not more books. But this year’s summer TV has actually delivered some pretty cool new shows, especially in the sci-fi realm. AMC’s latest show Humans, for instance, is a really interesting tale about a near future society where synthetic human robots, or synths, have become common place.

The show has three prominent plot lines so far. The most action-y of those plots is the kind of fare you’d expect from a show about robots. Some of the synths are starting to develop human emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. A fugitive named Leo (Colin Morgan) is trying to save a group of them, but on the other side of the coin is Hobb (Danny Webb), an agent who is trying to track down these synths and eliminate them because he considers them dangerous. This plot is fun and adds a thriller element to the show, but it is with the other characters that Humans truly shines.

The primary thread follows the Hawkins family. The father, Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), feels overwhelmed by the work he has to do around the house with three kids while his wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), is working in another city. Without consulting his wife he buys a synth (Gemma Chan) that the children eventually name Anita.

How the different members of the family react to Anita is probably the most interesting part of the show. The wife, who doesn’t feel very close to her children because she works away from home for stretches at a time, is resentful of Anita and feels that the robot is replacing her. And Sophie (Pixie Davis), the youngest daughter does quickly adopt Anita as a kind of mother figure. The eldest daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless) doesn’t like Anita but for different reasons. She has given up trying at school because she feels synths will replace humans in everything, and she treats Anita like a slave because she dislikes the synths. Then there are the men of the house, Joe and the son Toby (Theo Stevenson), who view Anita in a sexual light. Watching how the family members interact with Anita is fascinating, and the fact that Anita is beginning to remember having a human-like consciousness only makes things more complicated.

The final primary character is Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), a widower who developed some of the original synths. He is clinging to his outdated synth Odi (Will Tudor), even though the machine is essentially defective. But Millican is starting to lose his memory, and Odi was in his life when his wife was alive. Through Odi he can remember the time he spent with his wife, and he treats the machine almost like a son.

While the thriller aspect of the show keeps the plot moving and provides some more action than it might otherwise have, Humans appears to be a show that is really going to explore some of the potential issues of how humans would relate with robots or replicants. Some of the conflicts I can see arising this season are things like, is it cheating on your spouse to have sex with a synth? If you consider them just machines, then that’s arguably not too different from using a sex toy, but the human resemblance makes that a more complex issue. And then there are the emotional attachments to consider. Can a machine be a parent? Can a machine be a lover? Could we ever see machines as our own children?

All of these things are issues that sci-fi literature has been exploring for some time, but Humans is one of the few shows I can think of that is taking a nuanced look at our relationship to technology on mainstream television. For this reason alone I hope the show succeeds. Tech companies are continuing to make fascinating advancements in the fields of robotics and “machine consciousness” every day, and I think we need a cultural narrative in the popular zeitgeist that doesn’t just tell us to fear machines (read: Terminator) but instead asks us to really think about our relationship with technology and how it could develop moving forward.

Short Story Sunday: Here We Aren’t, So Quickly

Here We Aren’t, So Quickly” is a short story unlike anything I’ve read before. In a series of seemingly non sequitur sentences, Jonathan Safran Foer (who is probably best known for his novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), weaves an elaborate portrait of a couple’s life from the early years of their marriage into middle age.

As a reader I think this story is poetic in the way that it flows and the way that it is able to evoke the lives of the characters without using traditional narrative elements. As I writer I think this is an amazing piece and writing and a great example of what can be done when storytelling is approached in different ways. It’s certainly a story I would recommend for any aspiring authors, but it’s also a joy to simply read.