The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo

Core of the SunThe Core of the Sun
Johanna Sinisalo
Grove Press, 304 pages
Review by Iain Maloney

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Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun is a fantastic novel in all senses of the word. Originally published in Sinisalo’s native Finnish as Auringon Ydin, it’s set in a parallel 2016 where Finland has become the Eusistocratic Republic of Finland, a totalitarian state built around ‘the reign of health’ where the government’s main role is to oversee the ‘health and well-being of the citizens.’ While this sounds like a worthwhile goal, in reality it has led to sinister developments. Harmful intoxicants like alcohol and tobacco are prohibited, necessitating a police state and closed borders to enforce the laws. More frightening, the ‘health and well-being of the citizens’ is taken to include the sexual and reproductive health of the Finnish people – in other words, eugenics. Women have been split into two categories: Eloi – breeders, selected for sexual attractiveness and cute stupidity, and trained into docility, conformity and ignorance, and Morlocks – women who fall outside the desirable norm and are sterilised. The hideous terms are openly borrowed from H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and the morlocks in Sinisalo’s novel are as shunned by society as the subterranean monsters in the earlier work.

Vanna and Manna are sisters raised by their grandmother in rural Finland. While Manna is clearly a natural eloi – enforced sexual selection has made eloi the norm and majority – Vanna is intelligent and inquisitive, traits undesirable in a woman in this society. As a morlock she will be taken from her grandmother, sterilised and forced to live out her life on the fringes of society. The grandmother trains Vanna how to behave like an eloi. The novel takes place when Vanna is seventeen and Manna, already married at fifteen, has disappeared and her husband jailed for her murder (his sentence is light because killing a woman isn’t a serious crime).

While this could be the set up for a Handmaid’s Tale-esque feminist satire – and it is very much that – The Core of the Sun is so much more. An unintended consequence of the prohibition of stimulants is that a black market has developed. One of the most sought after substances is the chili pepper. For a society used to blandness, the adrenaline rush and delightful pain spicy food brings is as strong as a drug high. Vanna is a capso – addicted to capsaicin, the chemical behind the chili’s heat – and with her partner Jare, deals to others. She is a triple fugitive – a ‘gender fraud’, a drug addict and a dealer. The core of the sun in the title refers to the ultimate chili pepper, a spice so hot it provokes out-of-body experiences. While balancing this precarious existence, Vanna is still searching for her sister, refusing to accept her death without the proof of a body.

The comparison other reviewers have made with Margaret Atwood is apt. By tweaking trends and ideologies present in the modern world – though thankfully unfashionable outside Donald Trump’s head – she has created a believable dystopia where women are little more than slaves, literally bred to serve men. However Sinisalo’s fiery prose – certainly in this excellent translation by Lola Rogers – and exquisite world-building are more comparable to China Mieville. The slip-road history – only Finland has been altered, the rest of ‘hedonistic’ Europe is unchanged – strongly recalls Besźel / Ul Qoma in The City and the City, and the claustrophobic and paranoid isolation of that setting is echoed here.

Satire is always strongest when the target’s own words are used to incriminate them, and so extracts from official documents, public service broadcasts and Vanna’s indoctrination homework are woven through the text. At moments it can be a touch heavy-handed, but this is satire Swift would recognise: hard, caustic and unflinching. The Core of the Sun blends the best of speculative, dystopian and satirical fantasy fiction into a spicy, prickly fusion as blistering as it is moreish.