Fiction in Mindspace

The stories in Hannu Rajaniemi’s forthcoming (May 2015) Collected Fiction often start in full stream, looking both backward and forward. “The night after Kosonen shot the young elk, he tried to write a poem by the campfire” begins a tale of post-humanity, where squirrels pick locks, language animates matter, and a girl thinks in qubits. The timescape of a story may vary from millennia to microseconds, but always returns to the familiar metronome of a warm heartbeat, people dealing with circumstance, relationships made and broken, dreams shattered and rebuilt.

If you enjoy surfing the edge of mindspace and occasionally dipping into a wormhole of true otherness, I highly recommend this collection of stories, as well as his previous Jean Le Flambeur series. Take along your exocortex and reserve a few spare cloud cycles, to forestall brain overload.

His method for writing is to imagine a premise and then work out the implications, building a consistent gestalt. This may be derived (as he notes) from his training in theoretical mathematics. Not exactly science or fantasy, his stories inhabit an in-between zone, brightly lit and carefully limned. The result takes us to the heart of Paris, or to a space-suited soul of an astronaut, or to the existential reflections of a von Neumann probe. His prose is dense with thought and feeling, and each piece should be read twice: first for wonder, then for insight.

The 19 stories here span the range of Rajaniemi’s writing in fiction, from his first published story “Shibuya no Love” in 2003 to several in the past few years. Be ready for experiments in other forms of consciousness (“His Master’s Voice”), micro-Stapledonian world building (“Invisible Planets”), and repurposed fairy tale (“Snow White Is Dead”). Three in the collection are previously unpublished, including the longest in the collection, a gem of dieselpunk deeptech near-space singularity opera, “Skywalker of Earth.” Some verge into slipstream strangeness, such as “The Oldest Game” and “Paris, in Love.” We find our neurons being replaced one by one with an alternate reality.

Rajaniemi has always skated the edge. Born near the Arctic Circle in 1978, he went on to study mathematics at Cambridge and obtain a PhD in string theory at the University of Edinburgh. (He speaks of himself as a “recovering string theorist.”) Toward the end of his studies, realizing the limited applicability of string theory, co-founded a company which has been exploring mathematical methods applied to spacecraft, nanomedicine, and near-future quantum games. In an August 2014 interview he mentions current work developing a nano-scale intracellular recorder.

Hannu Rajaniemi

Hannu Rajaniemi

In 2008 he signed a contract for the three Jean Le Flambeur novels that began with The Quantum Thief, which explores identity, memory, the limits of consciousness. The series features a “gentleman detective” character who finds himself with various post-humans such as Mieli from the Oort Belt who creates with song, travels in the sentient ship Perhonen, and has a thermonuclear reactor built into her thigh. In my opinion the series places him in the top rank of authors; it tosses the reader immediately into shifting ideaspace, and if you hang onto your thoughtwisps, repays with a satisfying conclusion. I described it in a review of the second volume as a “mystical, magico-technical, post-human set of interlocked stories.”

Even for the informed reader his creations are surrounded by a nimbus of wonder. For the less prepared, this fog may obscure understanding, like the gevulot in Quantum Thief. Partly this is due to the familiar frisson of science-fictional vertigo we feel when presented with possibilities just over our conceptual horizon. It’s also because he doesn’t indulge in the dreaded professorial explanations that plague much of the genre. Need to know what a recursive brain-bonding AI meme is? Don’t expect the kindly doctor to clear away the fog.

On the other hand, with a little jargon under your belt you will enjoy his sly puns, like “quacker” (quantum hacker), or the “Assangelypse, back in 2014.” And his prose has gritty patches reminiscent of William Gibson, such as this description of a Japanese city in his first published story, “Shibuya no Love”: “Most of Shibuya was like a graffiti: clashing, bright, screaming colors over a drab concrete surface.”

Paradoxically, his fiction is much like living in the present day. Who really understands fMRI brain scanning, CRISPR gene editing, or protocells? For that matter, who really knows what makes up a universal Turing machine, those ubiquitous devices that we all carry in our pocket? After decades of books and movies featuring tin foil rocket ships, we’re finally living in a science fictional world. We’ve been launched into unknown realms without realizing it. As Robert Goddard said during his high school graduation at the dawn of the rocket age, It is difficult to say what’s impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

Many writers, transfixed by rapid developments in technology and science, struggle to depict the near future. In a time when stocks are traded by artificial intelligence, cars drive themselves, and telephones talk down to you, few among us see more than a year into the future. Cory Doctorow, on the other hand, takes issue with this idea that prediction is of the essence of the genre. He believes that “Science fiction writers don’t predict the future (except accidentally), but if they’re very good, they may manage to predict the present.”

Predicting the demise of writing, reading, and the novel has been a cottage industry for the last half century, but the novel may morph in the future under our spectacles. In 2013 Rajaniemi collaborated on an experiment involving fiction and a brain-computer interface. Dubbed neurofiction, it employs an off-the-shelf Emotiv headset to measure brain waves, analyses the output through machine learning, then uses your brain’s response to create individual pathways in the story.



As a result the one-dimensional linear track of fiction engages with a person’s mind to become a partnership; the sentient book as narrator, modifying the tale as she tells it around the fire. Google wants their artificial intelligence engine (aka search) to know what you want before you know you want it. Will such predictive analytics evolve into the Primer which guides little Nell in The Diamond Age to a more interesting life? Or will the living books in Fahrenheit 451 become extensions of our own brains?

We co-evolve with our creations, with the enveloping technium that humankind has developed over the last two millennia.

Rajaniemi’s stories are grounded in place, specifically Finland, with the slap of water at the edge of a fjord and endless summer days at the top of the world. They evoke an unfamiliar northland mythology: Tuoni the god of the underworld, Pekko the overseer of barley, Ahti with a beard made of moss.

These days it is fashionable to sniff at myth, secure in our enlightened certainty that von Neumann machines rule the day. We should perhaps wipe our sniffly noses and take stock.

Far from living in an age that has relegated mythology to the the back shelf of ancient history, hyper-rationalists today are actively conjuring figures in the mind’s eye. Our sufficiently advanced technology forms ghost images, and then life is breathed into these fearsome gods and demons: the inexorable thunderbolt of Moore’s Law, Pandora’s box of exponential returns, Olympian Jupiter brains.

Much speculative fiction today follows suit: it is superficial fear-mongering overlaid with cinematic action. Cyberians fly onstage while calm computer gods plot the extinction of puny hairless apes. Rajaniemi’s stories, in contrast, lie closer to the essence of experience: a girl who lost her parents; a dog pining for his master; a gamer who wants to play piano.

Rajaniemi compares the writing of fiction to wearing a spacesuit: it allows a writer to explore different realities and characters. In a 2013 talk on the future of books, he notes that the structure of novels has varied at least since Alice In Wonderland. One branch in its evolutionary bush brings us to interactive games, stories on screen, first-person push-button enactment. Another leads to the infinite realm of hypertext annotation, a Borges’ labyrinth of trails upon trails, links and connections, text within text. A third becomes the the collective stream of real-time experience generated and consumed by the hive mind.

In the end, however, he says for all readers the essential quality of fiction is a “waking dream,” a deep immersion. Stories begin from experience, but they inhabit an in-between realm. As Nabokov says: “literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. … Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between.” That shimmering wolf is our imagination, a new creation – virtual reality, serving visions to the dedicated reader.

Certainly there is science and technology aplenty in Collected Fiction for the discriminating ubergeek and jugaad, from protocells to the connectome, augmented reality­­­­­ to bubble universes, picotech pseudomatter to sub-mind simulations. I defy anyone with less than a degree in string theory to unpack this line without help: “Wiggle the M-theoretic compactification moduli locally and the value of Newton’s constant is altered.”

String-TheoryEven during trippy excursions into mindlike cosmology he manages to a evoke humanity 1.0, the deep feeling of what it means to be a person. His purpose in writing may lie in “widening the space of the possible forms of human existence,” as he describes transhumanism, but such existence is rooted in our hopes and fears. In addition to science we find echoes of ancient wisdom, as when a character discovers a silence in his mind or another shakes off brain-numbing trauma with the help of the Gayatri mantra. Reading Collected Fiction reminds us that a song can bring joy into the heart, and language can transform a life. Fine fiction like this expands our sensibility as well as our mind. As one character reflects, “there are always words behind words, never spoken.”

Collected Fiction shows the beginning development of a rising star in literature, a writer testing forms and methods. I look forward to Rajaniemi’s continued developments in the craft, as well as his work in the practical sciences. The future looks varied and bright, and with storytellers like him to keep us company by the fire, we’ll fall asleep to the chatter of sentient squirrels and wake to the whisper of possibility.

You can follow Hannu Rajaniemi’s observations on his Twitter feed

This review is based on an ARC (advance review copy) from Tachyon Publications.

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