Invisible Planets: Collected Fiction
Gollancz, 248 pages
Review: Iain Maloney
Short story collections tend to fall into one of two categories. Either the author has written every story with a collection in mind, stories focused around a theme, a world or a group of characters. Alternatively the collection is made up of disparate and diverse stories already published in journals and online over years, perhaps even decades.
The former are usually more satisfying to read, the grain of ideas flowing in one direction, tone and style complimentary. As all the stories are written over a shorter period of time, the quality of the writing will be more balanced, representing a snapshot of the author’s talent and interests at that time.
The latter approach can lead to uneven collections. Placing the author’s first forays into the form alongside more considered stories from later in their career can offer fascinating insights into how a talent has developed, but it also tends to amplify deficiencies in weaker work. Over the course of a career style shifts, voice changes, concerns and approaches morph into new avenues of exploration until a story from the author’s youth and one from middle-age can appear to be by two different writers. These books are often closer to scrap books for posterity, the work between the covers united by little more than a spine and some glue.
At first glance Hannu Rajaniemi’s first collection, Invisible Planets, bears all the hallmarks of the latter kind of collection: After a trilogy of novels comes the short story book, perhaps at the publishers insistence, keen to keep him in the public eye in lieu of a new novel, perhaps at the writer’s urging, keen to clear the decks and buy himself some time to prepare for the next novel or series. It includes his first published story, “Shibuya no Love” from 2003 and finishes with a sample of Twitter fiction. The signs were not good.
Fortunately, Rajaniemi is better than that. On the whole this is an excellent collection which captivates from the start. Rajaniemi has the kind of imagination capable of rushing off in twenty different directions—from haunted space suits through apocalyptic space battles to cities that fall in love and stalk people—while remaining firmly rooted in the one thing that makes any flight of fancy worth reading—the emotional realism at the heart of it. These stories all centre around personal relationships and regardless of whether the vehicle of exploration is an ancient horrific cult (“The Viper Blanket”) or a revenge plot executed by a cat and dog team (“His Master’s Voice”) it is love, loss and loneliness that unites this collection.
“The Jugaad Cathedral” is a particularly good example of this, exploring the widening gap between our online and offline personas through a near-future Edinburgh where social media and technology filters and controls every interaction. While Raija ‘stays away from dirty networks owned by capitalists’ and ‘digs old computers out of dumpsters and carries then around in big shoulder bags’, Kev ends their friendship in the Dwarfcraft community to ‘take real life a bit more seriously’, misunderstanding what ‘real’ means. For all the future tech and invented slang, this is a story about being yourself and following your passions regardless of some mainstream norm, that friendship isn’t found in likes and retweets but in shared interests and caring for the well-being of someone other than yourself.
Other details and tics help bring unity to this collection. Names are repeated drawing potential links between seemingly unrelated stories, many stories are set in Rajaniemi’s native Finland or in his adopted home of Edinburgh and recurring Finnish words like perkele (Devil) and Saatana (Satan) create an atmosphere of cohesion beyond the limits of theme and voice.
Two stories however let the side down. The running order is based on theme and style, like a good mixtape or playlist, rather than chronological, and reaches a natural and dramatic conclusion with the longest piece in the book, “Skywalker of Earth”. The book should end there and the reader would close the cover with satisfaction, but instead we are given “Neurofiction: Introduction to “Snow White is Dead” followed by “Snow White is Dead” and “Introduction to Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories” followed by “Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories”.
“Snow White…” was an experiment that Rajaniemi took part in, combining a Choose Your Own Adventure with brain-computer interfaces. The story is an approximation of what participants would have experienced. I can understand the author’s urge to share what must have been a fascinating process but the story, averaged out and cut from context, is flat and disjointed while the introduction itself (and if you need a few paragraphs of non-fiction to set up a piece of fiction, you’re already in a weak position) acknowledges that this is not how the story should be read or presented.
“Unused Tomorrows” is the aforementioned list of Twitter stories. While I love the idea of 140 character stories, no one has yet got round the problem of transposing them into a collection in a printed book. Here they are presented as a list, twenty-four covering three pages, encouraging you to read them from top to bottom rather than to treat each as a distinct piece. Each one blends into the next and the effect is underwhelming.
These two pieces feel like DVD extras, bonus material tagged on to the end and undermine the coherency of the whole.
That aside, Invisible Planets showcases Rajaniemi as one of the most imaginative and warm-hearted writers at work today. He never lets a neat idea get in the way of emotional truth and, as with great science fiction writers like John Wyndham, understands that fiction—all fiction, not just the science variety—is about exploring what it means to be a thinking, feeling, sentient being.
Originally published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 5.