lunes, 11 de mayo de 2015

Collected Fiction, by Hannu Rajaniemi: Fairy Tales of the Singularity

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)

Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Ain't Your Fairytale, by Sonata Arctica (Spotify, YouTube)

I consider Hannu Rajaniemi to be one of the most interesting short fiction writers currently publishing in the science fiction field. Thus, I approached his Collected Fiction with great expectations. I was looking forward both to reading the stories that I didn't know and to re-reading those that I had encountered before. I was surprised, for different reasons and in different ways, by both groups.

I had previously read stories such as "Deus Ex Homine", "The Server and the Dragon", "His Master's Voice", "Tyche and the Ants", "Invisible Planets" or "Elegy for a Young Elk" on different anthologies and magazines and over a period of several years. Now that I've had the chance of reading them one after another, I've found that they are better experienced and enjoyed as a whole, like pieces of a much bigger puzzle.

Indeed, there are many themes and ideas that are common to almost all of them and even some shared background events that lead to believe they are mostly set in the same universe or timeline. But what I appreciated the most in my re-reading them is how Rajaniemi approaches, through all of them, the topic of Singularity in a particular, original and extremely suitable way. In fact, I think that this set of stories can be aptly described as Fairy Tales of the Singularity.

The Singularity is, because of its own nature, impossible to grasp by us, puny humans. This is at least, one of the most popular and extended ways of thinking about it, especially after Vernor Vinge's foundational writings on the topic. Rajaniemi is, obviously, quite aware of the fact:
"So how are you, these days?" he asked. "Keeping busy?" 
Marja smiled. "Your wife grew up. She's a big girl now. You don't want to know how big." 
"So... you are not her, then? Who am I talking to?" 
"I am her, and I am not her. I'm a partial, but a faithful one. A translation. You wouldn't understand." ("Elegy for a Young Elk")
But that we can't fully comprehend something doesn't mean that we can't write about it. If it were so, then literature would be quite limited indeed. Do we understand love completely? Or friendship? Or beauty? Of course not, and we probably never will, but that doesn't stop us from thinking, talking, writing about them. On the contrary, it only makes it more urgent to use tools other than cold logic to explore them. Maybe we can't discuss the Singularity directly, but we can always approach it indirectly, through analogies and metaphors:
During the millennia of its journey, the darkship's mind has expanded, until it has become something that has to be explored and mapped. The treasures it contains can only be described in metaphors, brittle and misleading and distant, like mirages. ("Invisible Planets")  
Rajaniemi chooses, in most of the stories I've mentioned above, to explore the Singularity using the language and images of fairy tales:
The city was surrounded by a halo of glowing fairies, tiny winged moravecs that flitted about like humanoid fireflies and the waste heat from their overlooked bodies draped the city in an artificial twilight (...). Innumerable quickbeings shimmer in the air like living candles, and the suits of the fleshed ones are no less exotic. A woman clad in nothing but autumn leaves smiles at me. Tinker Bell clones surround the cat. ("His Master's Voice")
This approach may seem strange at first, with all the talking animals, dragons, gods, hunters that live in the woods, trolls and so on. But, in fact, once the Singularity comes, the computers will become something so above us that talking about them as if they were gods or fantastic beings could be closer to the truth than trying to describe them in terms of circuits and algorithms. Rajaniemi's writing style, with so much left unsaid and unexplained, can be a little demanding on the reader, but once you accept the rules of his game, it becomes fascinating. I dare to say that his way of dealing with the Singularity is not only one of the most original out there, but probably one of the most adequate as well.

As I mentioned above, there were also a number of stories in this collection, approximately half of the total, that I hadn't read before. I was also surprised by them, but in a not so pleasant way as with my revisiting the ones I had encountered before. Maybe my expectations were a little off, but I didn't imagine Rajaniemi wrote horror ("Ghost Dogs", "The Viper Blanket"), plain fantasy ("Satan's Typist") or folklore-inspired tales ("Fisher of Men"). Unfortunately, I was left quite cold by them and also by those stories with a more experimental edge ("Snow White Is Dead", "Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories").

Of the tales that I didn't know before I did like "The Jugaad Cathredal" (which reminded me somehow of Neal Stephenson and Charles Stross), "The Haunting of Apollo A7LB" (simple but nice story) and "Skywalker of Earth" (a little too pulpy for my taste, but with some memorable scenes). However, after the super-strong first half of the book, I couldn't help feeling a bit disappointed by these comparatively weaker stories. This is one of these cases in which less would have been more and, in my humble opinion, the collection would have benefited had some of the tales not been included.

Anyway, I recommend Collected Fiction, especially if you haven't read Rajaniemi's short fiction before. There are quite a few superb stories here ("Deus Ex Homine", "The Server and the Dragon", "His Master's Voice", "Invisible Planets" or "Elegy for a Young Elk", for instance) and the book is worth for them alone. And even if you have read them before in other places, the experience of watching them interact and form a bigger, more complete whole is very rewarding.

(You can also read this review in Spanish/También puedes leer esta reseña en español)

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