At the 75th World Science Fiction Conference (Worldcon 75) held in August 2017 in Helsinki, Finland, the bag of goodies for attendees included Giants at the End of the World – A Showcase of Finnish Weird, a collection of the best short stories by eleven of the best of Finnish Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Weird authors whose works have been translated into English. It was a freebie that probably had the same value as the membership of the World Science Fiction Society, a prerequisite for attendance. Interestingly, the anthology answered one of the issues most talked about at the conference: – the line between science and fiction, or between normal and weird.
The conference speakers addressed many aspects related to the science part of Sci-Fi, such as Artificial Intelligence, robotics, geology, politics, gender issues, space travel, and the existence or not of golems, trolls, etc. They did not so much address the other part of the equation: what is fiction and how to critique Sci-Fi. In this collection, the stories have one thing in common – the depiction of normality as weird, unrealistic, impossible or implausible.
In each story, at some point, the author makes a little jump, from what you’d expect in the real, factual world, to what you’d not expect. It’s like they shift, within the space of a few words or phrases, from one dimension to another. It is unnerving to read, but demonstrates very clearly the moment at which the reader is expected to let their imagination take over, and the moment when that which can be observed and rationalized (the science part) is changed to fiction. Of course, it all depends on what, in your particular world, is reality and fact.
Terry Pratchett, in his collection of essays on his work and his illness, Terry Pratchett In His Own Words – A Slip of the Keyboard, explained how the production of Science Fiction (including Fantasy) works, and how this “switching” process comes about – basically the author writes “reality from a different perspective”:
“Every literary novelist apparently knows that science fiction is ‘all about’ robots and spaceships and other planets. Oh, there’s plenty of that stuff as top dressing, but at its best science fiction is about us and our Faustian bargain with our big brains, which dragged us out of the trees but may yet drag us into the volcano.” (p.218)
This point of view, that Sci-Fi and Fantasy are, at their best, basically about normal people written from an entirely different perspective, is borne out by his own writing style, which is to take a historical fact or existing idea and twist it and turn it and invert it until it becomes something fantasticical and funny. It is also what Johanna Sinisalo says about Finnish Weird and speculative fiction in her Foreword to Giants at the End of the World:
“Of course, this anthology is but another tip of another iceberg – the diversity of Finnish speculative writing is great, and ranges from stories inspired by our unique mythology to ecological dystopias and hardcore sf epics.” (p.8)
These stories are very much speculations, twists-in-the-tales, or inversions of everyday life in Finland (mostly), each to a greater or lesser degree, from small moments to new visions, with the one constant being “the human condition”. Not spaceships, robots, planets or new universes – just humans. All of this is made richer and more intriguing by being Finnish, with authors being able to both plunge into the problems of the modern Finnish welfare state, and its ancient mythology of trolls, giants, goblins and magic.
This might explain why the experts said to authors at the conference, if you have to write hard SF, set it in the far, far future, or not at all. The confluence or integration of normal, current world views with futuristic science is often difficult, as many Sci-Fi works show. It requires a lot more effort from readers, and often lacks emotional appeal. It takes a masterful writer to achieve both. So this type of weird fiction, which requires only a shift in perspective to achieve maximum impact, is much easier to like. And like it I did. Every story had a most marvellous twist, a sneaky cleverness that was perplexing but also entertaining and moving. I reread some stories just to get that kick again. Each writer somehow managed to achieve that moment when “reality [is seen] from a different perspective”, to which Terry Pratchett referred.
Contents of the anthology
The Haunted House on Rocketworks Street, by Pai Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Children – or are they mice? – play dare at an empty house on their street, and there is a girl at the window – or is she a ghost?
Undine, by Maria Turtschaninoff
Women in a lonely mountain village watch with worry as a newcomer, Undine, cannot let go her obsession with the sea. Why are the women exiled there? Are they mermaids? (It helps to know that undines or ondines are elemental beings associated with water, first named in the writings of Paracelsus, and in modern fairy tales they are known as water nymphs or mermaids, like in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, 1837.) The beauty of this story is in its descriptions of the women’s longing for the sea.
Snowfall, by Tiina Raevaara
A woman finds tracks in the snow outside her house and tips over into madness when she tries to trap the creatures she thinks are stalking her. “I walk to the door, open it, and there it is standing in front of me, dark, snouty, almost like an animal, my size, almost my shape as well, yet alien – all this in a flash.”
Voiceless Voices, by Johanna Sinisalo, the “Queen of Finnish Weird”
“Jan”, from some backwater, writes letters to a female friend, “Margareetta”, about his experiences in the city and his new obsession, the “Voiceless Voices”, whose artists basically copy handwritten documents. The performance art is in the handwriting, not in the meaning of the writing. It is not so much strange (in fact it seems quite plausible for a few centuries in the past when literacy and books were only for the elite) as questioning: “If we were to start focusing on the content of the text, wherever would it lead? Suddenly the ur-text chosen by the calligrapher would start to be a hindrance to the audience experience, it would draw viewers’ minds to quite trivial matters such as what the text as a whole means!”
The Bearer of the Bone Harp, by Emmi Itäranta
A pair of ghost-hunters go about evicting a noisy resident from a building, but with music.
The Baby Blue Button, by Miina Supinen
A new mother fails to cope with her new baby, but soon help arrives in the shape of a fairy godmother – when the story moves from normal to weird.
The Skinner, by Anne Leinonen
People travel from village to village in ancient times, carrying the local history with them in the form of tattoos. But they have to shed their skins at some point.
The Challenges of Waste Disposal, by Jenny Kangasvuo
This was my favourite. A student runs out of money. Soon she also runs out of…well, everything. She becomes trash. It is beautifully imaged.
The River God, by Anni Nupponen
A teenager becomes obsessed with an ancient river god – but what is real, and what is not? When does she tip over into another world? It is a perfect depiction of the incomprehensible thoughts of teenagers.
Summerland: Chaper 1, by Hannu Rajaniemi
The extract chapter is about a highly unusual duel. The novel promises to be as surprising.
Giants at the End of the World, by Leena Likitalo
Once there were wonders, to which people travelled for ages to see. Nowadays, it is said there are no wonders, and people can see anything on the internet, and value nothing. But giants, at the remote end of the world, no less – are they real? Or are they simply things which are holding up the development of a property? The author is quite a genius at depicting the moment when magic exists, like when Paul Auster describes how a human levitates, in Mr. Vertigo (1994). You know it is fantasy, it cannot be, yet, for a moment, you suspend disbelief and see the giants walk out of the ocean.
About the authors
Go to the Finnish Weird website to find more works by these authors.