Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Writer to Watch

Short fiction holds up half the sky, and yet an important and award-winning short story won't get a fraction of the reviews of a mediocre novel.  So I'm hoping to season this blog with the occasional such review, if I can find the time.  Not yet, but soon.

In the meantime, a few words about a new writer about whom Charles Stross was particularly enthusiastic. when I was hanging with him in Scotland.  Hannu Rajaniemi is a Finn who lives in Edinburgh and writes in English.  I'd never heard of the guy.  But I promised I'd keep an eye out for his work.

The very next day, in Transreal Fiction ("Scotland's Premiere Science Fiction and Fantasy Bookstore"), I picked up a copy of Nova Scotia, a 2005 collection of Scottish speculative fiction.  In it was Rajaniemi's "Deus Ex Homina."  It was selected for the Dozois best-of-the-year volume, but somehow I'd managed to miss it.  I took the anthology back to my flat and read the story that night.

Here's how it begins:

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.  
I was damn lucky.  I survived.

Which is a fine example of extravagant post-Singular techno-wonk being let off the leash for a brief romp and then called to heel so the story can proceed.  But the chief reason I quote it is that the other day I read a story set in the near future which was chock-a-block with 1960s cultural references, including the brief appearance of someone who died in the previous century.  SF writers can have as hard a time keeping up with the culture as anyone -- and yet here Rajaniemi is writing in full awareness of (among other things) Stross's Accelerando stories.  Which were first collected in book form in 2005, the same year this story was published.

When the story opens, Jukka, the protagonist and narrator, is in the small fishing village of Pittenweem, waiting to meet his old girlfriend, Aileen.  She descends from the sky in an angel (obviously a mecha -- and how many prose sf writers have gotten around to using those?), a soldier in the Deicide Corps.  Swiftly, efficiently, over the course of a family meal, Rajaniemi paints a picture of the Singularity gone wrong, expressing itself in the form of a very bad war between humanity and godplague.

This being, under all the flash and glitter, a classical science fiction story in conception, the plot opens up at the end into a conceptual breakthrough and the possibility of a new synthesis.

There was only one bit of the story which didn't work properly.  That was the name of the AI device which protects the unaltered humans beyond the Wall -- the Fish.  As Jukka explains, "It's a geek joke, a recursive acronym.  Fish Is Super Human.  Lots of capital letters.  It's not that funny, really."  I chewed over that one for a long time before concluding it was a mistake.  But it's exactly the kind of startlingly original mistake which a real science fiction writer, a guy or gal with that spark of divine fire, would make.  It only makes me think the better of him.

I should also mention that Rajaniemi has made a virtue of English being his second language by writing in a crisp, simple, lucid style that gleams like crystal on the page.  A quick search of the web reveals that Rajaniemi's first novel will be published by Tor next May.  It's the first of a trilogy and apparently Tor expects great things from him.

Based on the one story, so do I.  Keep an eye on this guy.



Bruce said...

Yes, an ARC of 'The Quantum Thief' appeared and vanished at abebooks in the time I asked my wife if I could invest $50 in it.

I bet Greg Egan bought it :0)

drxray said...

The UK hardcover of the Quantum Thief is being released by Gollancz on the 30th of this month.

Charlie Stross said...

Gollancz launch "The Quantum Thief" in late October, in the Finnish embassy; Hannu's being seen as a big enough cultural ambassador that the government have noticed him. And John Clute has just delivered the nearest thing to a rave review I've ever seen from him:

To add to the fun, what's not immediately obvious is that Hannu's got a PhD in string theory and is playing with hard physics in the key of Greg Egan, only not so clunkily. Art *and* science, in other words.

That's why I think he's going to be huge -- or at least as big as this straitened field can hold.