An Interview with Hannu Rajaniemi
By Preston Grassmann
PG: From the beginning of The Quantum Thief, it’s clear that the reader is in the deep end of the SF pool, where the concepts and inventions are initially free of context. The reader, not unlike the detective in the novel, must use inference to figure out how the various parts fit together. For me, this was part of the pleasure of reading the TQT. Was this estrangement of context intentional on your part?
HR: At least in part, yes. As you say, I wanted to avoid infodumps and give the reader the opportunity to gradually piece the various concepts together. With the wisdom of hindsight, the opening of the novel is not particularly gentle in this respect — some readers seem to find it off-putting — but quite a few people seem to be willing to play the game. Many readers have said that the critical mass of understanding is achieved around page 100…
PG: There’s a high level of complexity here, in terms of plot-lines and the conceptual framework. One imagines it must’ve taken a lot of planning and preparation. What was the process of creation? Did you start with pages of notes?
HR: I do make a lot of notes and I find it necessary to spend quite a long time thinking before actually writing anything. One of my literary heroes, the Finnish writer Mika Waltari, once said that one should keep thinking until one cannot hold the story in any longer, until it forces itself out: that is certainly true for me. I wrote the bulk of the actual text of TQT in about two months, but it took about two years of thinking and daydreaming to get to that point.
So, planning is good and necessary, but the *real* story only emerges through writing, and what works in my imagination does not necessarily work on paper. And being surprised by your characters and the story is a large part of the joy of doing it, of course.
PG: You invite a variety of readings – radical SF, a cat-and-mouse mystery, a play on consensual reality and history. Who do you see as your ideal reader?
HR: One guiding principle behind TQT was to write a book I wanted to read myself… but having said that, I’ve had very nice feedback from both hardcore SF fans and people who have never picked up a science fiction novel in their lives. So I’d say anyone who enjoys mysteries and adventure, is willing to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride.
PG: One of the most brilliant conceits of The Quantum Thief is how you’re able to advance a classic a mystery story in a world of ubiquitous information technology. Was it a challenge to work this out in post-singularity world?
HR: That was the challenge or the contradiction (always good for any creative process) that drove both the story and the worldbuilding. At first I had a vague idea about wanting to write a story about a gentleman thief in a post-singularity setting. That immediately begged the question of what is actually worthwhile stealing in a world without material scarcity, where everything can be copied. The answer to that turned out to be quantum information. A gentleman thief also needs an adversary, a detective: but being a detective in a world with ubiquitous computing and sensing where everything is recorded would be meaningless. So that led to the idea of the Oubliette, a society where privacy and control of personal information is the most fundamental value of all.
PG: You introduce a variety of original high-concept SF ideas, such as q-dots, weaponized Bose-Einstein condensates, and non-sequential dorsal streams. Has your background in the sciences (Ph.d in mathematics) played an important role in your writing?
HR: To some extent, although I shamelessly handwave or bluff a lot of things that aren’t mathematics or physics (and a lot of things that are). TQT is often described as hard SF, but I’m not really trying to write hard SF in the vein of Egan or Benford: I don’t work out the equations as I go. For me, the more important consequence of having a scientific background is a degree of speculative rigour: trying hard to work out the consequences of the assumptions one begins with.
PG: Among the many original concepts introduced in your novel, you have a technology called gevulot, which is a computer governed veil used for privacy control. It becomes an integral part of the plot, as the story develops. Did such ideas occur to you in the writing process, or were they worked out in advance?
HR: Gevulot was always meant to be a key plot element, but how the characters ended up using it and how it all played out very much emerged during the writing. At least for me, it’s hard to “see” how it all fits together until you put yourself inside the characters’ heads and really immerse yourself in what is going on.
PG: Can you tell us about your writing process?
HR: It’s sort of organic. I start with little post-it notes: one idea per post-it. I accumulate them for a while (sometimes weeks or months) and then cluster them on sheets of paper or notebooks, trying to see patterns. This can include ideas for scenes, characters, little background details, worldbuilding elements and so on. After a while, story shapes emerge and the sticky clusters are distilled into slightly more concrete notes, mind maps and diagrams. With the TQT sequel I’m working on at the moment, I’ve used 6”x4” index cards and covered my living room floor in them for a couple of weeks at one point.
When the story wants to get out, I write a first draft of each chapter (longhand), type it up and edit it to death with a red pen. Analog tools work well for me because they are sort of calming and eliminate distractions; in the necessarily digital rewriting stage I find it necessary to turn to a little Mac app called Freedom, which shuts off your Internet connection for a prescribed amount of time…
PG: Who are some of the writers that you think that people should be paying attention to in the field? Who are your greatest influences?
HR: I’m not necessarily up to speed on who the rising stars of the genre are at the moment, but smy guess would be that (for example) Jetse de Vries’s lovely anthology *Shine* contains quite a few names to watch.
Well-known writers I admire include Ian McDonald, Roger Zelazny, Michael Chabon and Kelly Link. In terms of influences, I’ve probably been shaped more by my interaction with the members of my writers’ group Writers’ Bloc than anyone else.
PG: Can you tell us anything about current projects?
HR: I’m working on the still-unnamed sequel to The Quantum Thief. It’s a bit early to say too much about it, but it will reveal more about the Sobornost (a sinister totalitarian upload collective), Jean and Mieli’s past and various other secrets.
In terms of structure, I’m trying to do something a little bit different than with the first book, but we’ll see how it turns out…
First published in Bull Spec Magazine.
The Campbell (for best novel): The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (Finland) and Aurorama by Jean-Christophe Valtat (France).
The Sturgeon (for best short story): The Night Train by Lavie Tidhar.
Over at Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog, Jeff VanderMeer profiles Johanna Sinisalo, Hannu Rajaniemi, and interviews Jukka Halme. Here’s an excerpt:
Supported by that community, a number of unique Finnish writers are appearing on the scene—several of whom have been or will soon be translated into English. Two of the most prominent for readers in English this year are Johanna Sinisalo and Hannu Rajaniemi, both of whom, Halme notes, just happen to hail from the same village in Finland.
Sinisalo, whose Birdbrain was published this April in the U.S., is a well-known figure in Finland, where she’s written teleplays, screenplays, and been involved in a stunning number of different creative projects. Including Birdbrain on my top 10 fantasy novels list for Locus Online, I wrote, “This slow-burn of a novel relates the story of Finns Jyrki and Heidi as they hike through the wilderness of Tasmania and New Zealand. Sinisalo immerses the reader in the physicality of the trek, and the increasing isolation of the hikers…the atmosphere created is exciting and the trip fascinating to watch play out. When the fantastical element finally enters the story it’s all the more effective because of the careful way in which Sinisalo has brought the reader to that point.”
Rajaniemi is a new writer whose first novel The Quantum Thief has taken the United Kingdom by storm. Described as “a crazy joyride through the solar system several centuries hence,” the novel is published this month by Tor, amid excited buzz. Halme told me that the novel has been just as popular in Finland as in the U.K., and gained a lot of legitimacy for science fiction in his country. Indeed, Rajaniemi wrote his novel in English, meaning it had to be translated into Finnish for publication in his home country. Although not many Finnish authors do self-translate, most do read in English, as it is a widely used language.
The Guardian has posted a new interview with Finnish writer Hannu Rajaniemi, with a particular focus on writing in English versus Finnish - fascinating!
It seemed natural to start writing in English, Rajaniemi continues, because it was the language he was speaking in his daily life. There was also no question of getting feedback from the others in the writing group if he was writing in Finnish. But he soon discovered that he had a different personality when he was writing in English – a personality he liked.
“It’s probably a bit of a cliche, but I’m a bit more outgoing in English, whereas in Finnish I tend to be quieter, more reserved,” he says. “It’s maybe because, for me, Finnish is very much a personal language – it’s the language I speak with my very, very close friends and my parents – whereas pretty much my whole professional career, my scientific career and my writing career has been in English, so it’s outward facing.”
Rajaniemi describes Finnish as a language of poetry and song, with great facility for shaping words and making compounds. His English writing style is simpler, a little more pared-down. Reading some of the first few chapters from the Finnish translation, which he says he’d love to have done himself but hasn’t got the time, was a “strange experience … It felt like they had been written by some Finnish evil twin. It was very good Finnish, but not the Finnish I would have written had I done it myself.” – read the full interview.
Over at Torque Control, they’ve just run their second Short Story Club, discussing, among others, stories by Vandana Singh - Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra (read the story online at Strange Horizons) – and Hannu Rajaniemi – Elegy for a Young Elk (read the story online at Subterranean Online). Check out the discussion on each!
Before the concert, we steal the master’s head.
The necropolis is a dark forest of concrete mushrooms in the blue Antarctic night. We huddle inside the utility fog bubble attached to the steep southern wall of the nunatak, the ice valley.
The cat washes itself with a pink tongue. It reeks of infinite confidence.
“Get ready,” I tell it. “We don’t have all night.”
It gives me a mildly offended look and dons its armor. The quantum dot fabric envelopes its striped body like living oil. It purrs faintly and tests the diamond-bladed claws against an icy outcropping of rock. The sound grates my teeth and the razor-winged butterflies in my belly wake up. I look at the bright, impenetrable firewall of the city of the dead. It shimmers like chained northern lights in my AR vision.
I decide that it’s time to ask the Big Dog to bark.My helmet laser casts a one-nanosecond prayer of light at the indigo sky: just enough to deliver one quantum bit up there into the Wild. Then we wait. My tail wags and a low growl builds up in my belly.
Right on schedule, it starts to rain red fractal code. My augmented reality vision goes down, unable to process the dense torrent of information falling upon the necropolis firewall like monsoon rain. The chained aurora borealis flicker and vanish.
“Go!” I shout at the cat, wild joy exploding in me, the joy of running after the Small Animal of my dreams. “Go now!”
The cat leaps into the void. The wings of the armor open and grab the icy wind, and the cat rides the draft down like a grinning Chinese kite. – continue reading.
British author James Lovegrove reviews four international novels this week for the Financial Times:
- The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi, Gollancz RRP£18.99, 266 pages
- Metro 2033, by Dmitry Glukhovsky, translated by Natasha Randall, Gollancz RRP£14.99, 458 pages
- Loups-Garous, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, translated by Anne Ishii, Haika Soru RRP£9.99, 458 pages
- Escher’s Loops, by Zoran Zivkovic, translated by Alice Copple-Tosic, PS Publishing RRP£20, 330 pages
In the future, international divisions and rivalries will be a thing of the past. Or so science fiction often predicts. The bridge of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, for instance, is a commendably multiracial place (and not all of those races are from Earth, either); and there are any number of SF novels that prophesy a world government, a kind of super UN with legislative powers.
In publishing terms, however, science fiction is not quite so freely cross-cultural. Rights for English-language SF novels are frequently sold abroad in non-English-speaking territories, but the traffic is mostly one-way. Rare is the foreign-language SF novel that is imported into an anglophone country, against the prevailing current.
One reason for this is translation costs, which take a chunk out of what may already be slender profit margins. But there is also, perhaps, an inherent conservatism in the core readership. By and large, anglophone SF aficionados know what they like and like what they know. An appetite exists for experimental and esoteric SF but the preferred fare is meat-and-potatoes stuff: future war, alien encounters, and the galaxy-spanning melodrama known as space opera. Since there are plenty of anglophone authors who supply demand, why look elsewhere?
Even when non-anglophone books would seem to cater for anglophone tastes, they seldom cross borders. The Perry Rhodan series of novels, begun in 1961 and still going to this day, is a German phenomenon. These spacefaring adventures, starring the eponymous American astronaut and written by diverse hands, appear on a weekly basis, and the total number of individual volumes published so far stands at a whopping 2,500. Many were reprinted in the US during the 1960s but since then English-language publication has been sporadic at best. For all the seemingly universal appeal of the books’ subject matter and the vast amount of ancillary material (comics, fan sites, audio plays, etc) that has accreted around them, they’ve failed to find much appreciation among anglophone audiences.
The four novels under consideration here are drawn from diverse corners of the non-anglophone world. The choice has been somewhat constrained by virtue of the fact that the range of material available is so limited. Does this furnish proof of an unconscious chauvinism in the home market? And what can non-anglophone SF tell us about the state of the genre in general? – continue reading.
A new story from fast rising Finnish star Hannu Rajaniemi, over at Subterranean Magazine – Elegy for a Young Elk:
The night after Kosonen shot the young elk, he tried to write a poem by the campfire.
It was late April and there was still snow on the ground. He had already taken to sitting outside in the evening, on a log by the fire, in the small clearing where his cabin stood. Otso was more comfortable outside, and he preferred the bear’s company to being alone. It snored loudly atop its pile of fir branches.
A wet smell that had traces of elk shit drifted from its drying fur.
He dug a soft-cover notebook and a pencil stub from his pocket. He leafed through it: most of the pages were empty. Words had become slippery, harder to catch than elk. Although not this one: careless and young. An old elk would never had let a man and a bear so close.
He scattered words on the first empty page, gripping the pencil hard.
Antlers. Sapphire antlers. No good. Frozen flames. Tree roots. Forked destinies. There had to be words that captured the moment when the crossbow kicked against his shoulder, the meaty sound of the arrow’s impact. But it was like trying to catch snowflakes in his palm. He could barely glimpse the crystal structure, and then they melted.
He closed the notebook and almost threw it into the fire, but thought better of it and put it back into his pocket. No point in wasting good paper. Besides, his last toilet roll in the outhouse would run out soon.
“Kosonen is thinking about words again,” Otso growled. “Kosonen should drink more booze. Don’t need words then. Just sleep.”
Kosonen looked at the bear. “You think you are smart, huh?” He tapped his crossbow. “Maybe it’s you who should be shooting elk.”
“Otso good at smelling. Kosonen at shooting. Both good at drinking.” Otso yawned luxuriously, revealing rows of yellow teeth. Then it rolled to its side and let out a satisfied heavy sigh. “Otso will have more booze soon.”
Maybe the bear was right. Maybe a drink was all he needed. No point in being a poet: They had already written all the poems in the world, up there, in the sky. They probably had poetry gardens. Or places where you could become words. – read the rest of the story.
Editorial: The Language of science fiction
This was going to be a shameless self-promotion editorial, in which I tell you that my new novel, The Bookman, comes out tomorrow in the UK and Australia. I was going to say it’s a steampunk adventure, and a book about books, and a mystery, and a love story…
But instead I think I’ll talk about something else.
Firstly, my book isn’t the only one coming out tomorrow. I am not sure it is exactly a trend, but we are certainly seeing a – however small – group of writers who have chosen to write in English in order to reach a wider readership (or for other reasons, which is partially the subject of this editorial). Tomorrow, then, also sees publication of French author Aliette de Bodard’s first novel, Servant of the Underworld, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet but which sounds fabulous, a murder mystery set in the blood-drenched world of human sacrifice and Aztec mythology…
And coming out this year we have Finnish writer Hannu Rajamieni’s first novel, The Quantum Thief, which I’ve been hearing great things about, while Dutch writer Jetse de Vries, putting on his editorial hat, will see his first anthology, Shine, published. All four books come from mass market publishers in the UK – and we can also expect translated novels from French writer Pierre Pevel and Russian writer Dmitry A. Glukhovsky…
Pretty extraordinary, really.
So… why English? I ask the question not for myself but because a common argument – across languages, in fact, since I’ve heard it expressed with regards to any non-English language, from Hebrew to French – is that English is the language of science fiction.
What do they mean by that? Why can’t science fiction be written in other languages?
My own view, of course, is that this is (to borrow a term from that great showman, P.T. Barnum) complete hokum. Yet it is so prevalent, and I see it repeated again and again. Partially it is the terminology of science fiction – anything from wormhole to ansible, from warp drive to FTL, from “plugged in” to BEM to the “science fiction” itself. In Hebrew, for instance, science fiction was initially called mada dimyoni, or “imaginary science”, before being replaced with mada bidyoni, or “fictional science”, then shorthanded conversationally to madab, the sort of acronym Hebrew likes so much. English is the language of science fiction! And there’s something in that – when you even have to argue about which word to use for the English “telephone” or “computer”…
One of the nicest words Hebrew doesn’t use is “sach-rachok” (try pronouncing the ‘ch’ as that sort of deep-in-the-throat sound). It means something like “speak-distance” and was an early word proposed, by that most venerable institute, the Academy of the Hebrew Language, for “telephone”.
Of course, it also sounded a bit silly, and no one wanted to use it, and Hebrew ended up borrowing the word “telephone” and making quite nice use of it after all.
But see, that’s the beauty of language – any language. Not just the act of borrowing (what is also called ‘loan words’) – the way English borrowed “amen” or “cabal” or “sack” from the Hebrew, or borrowed “algebra” and “bazaar” from Arabic, or “chocolate” from Nahuatl…
Languages always evolve, and they do so by borrowing, and by modifying, and by adapting, and by making up new words (neologisms). English does a lot of it… and so does any other language. Being a speaker of Bislama (the pidgin English – and now, sometimes, creole – of the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu), I was delighted recently to come across a new verb – gugelem. Which means, of course, to google! (as in, bae mi gugelem – I’ll google it).
The argument about vocabulary really doesn’t hold. Indeed, it should be one of the most fun parts of writing science fiction in another language – coining new terms or transforming existing ones to create a new language of science fiction.
Here I am, “guilty” just as much for writing in English.
The thing is, I do love English. And by writing in English I can assure myself not only more readers, but also – and this is rather crucial, alas – better pay for my work. But I continue, albeit rarely, to write in Hebrew for the pure joy of it – short stories such as “Shira” (later translated and published in English in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction & Fantasy, ed. Ellen Datlow), or “Chalomot Be’aspamia” (translated and published, as “Daydreams” in Apex Digest) – I even wrote an entire book in Hebrew, with Nir Yaniv, just for the hell of it – “Retzach Bidyoni”, or “A Fictional Murder” (itself a play-on-words on the Hebrew term for science fiction), a tongue-in-cheek murder mystery set in an Israeli SF convention, a la Bimbos of the Death Sun…
I’m even working on a book that incorporates at least segments of Bislama into the narrative – and would happily write an entire book in that language, if only there was someone to publish it…
For it is market forces that dictate the writing of science fiction, not “a limited vocabulary” or some mythical Campbellian (John, not Joseph) strictures; it is not lack of words but lack of finance that restrict, in many parts of the world, the writing of science fiction into the foolhardy act of a maddened lover. And yet there is a joy in it, a purity that can be captivating.
My love of Hebrew science fiction – however obscure the titles, however bad some of its early forms – remains alongside my love of English science fiction. And it shapes my own writing, whatever the language.
Finnish writer Hannu Rajaniemi‘s story, “His Master’s Voice” (originally published in Interzone), is now available as a podcast on Escape Pod.
Before the concert, we steal the Master’s head. The Necropolis is a dark forest of concrete mushrooms in the blue Antarctic night. We huddle inside the utility fog level attached to the steep southern wall of the ice valley. The cat washes itself with a pink tongue. It reeks of infinite confidence.
“Get ready,” I tell it. “We don’t have all night.”
It gives me a moderately offended look, and dons its armor.