Speculative romance from Finland
Although one may not be aware of it, Finland is small in area but big in female speculative writers! We touched base with a group of such writers and asked them to share their perspectives on speculative fiction, romance and “Finnish Weird”. Participating in this discussion are the authors Magdalena Hai (Magdalena H), Anne Leinonen (Anne L) and J.S. Meresmaa (JSM). They all are pioneers of the Finnish science fiction and fantasy literature in their own field. All of them are also members of the publishing cooperative Osuuskumma specializing in the otherwise marginal genre of science fiction and fantasy literature.
Anne, how would you summarise the publishing landscape of speculative fiction in Finland?
Anne L: The Finnish language area is small: there are only some 5 million Finnish speakers in the world. However, Finnish literature is a strong phenomenon and evokes passionate attitudes among the people. There’s been science fiction and fantasy literature in Finland since the 19th C, but its full bloom was only reached in the last twenty years. Our speculative fiction mostly exists next to mainstream fiction, competing with the same readers. Quite a lot of science fiction has also been translated into the Finnish language, and it’s always been an important part of the literary awareness of both readers and writers within the country.
A tradition of commercial sf/f magazines never got formed in Finland. Science fiction has grown and advanced together with fandom, the local sf-societies, and writers’ associations. Many of those have offered publication in fanzines, and short story competitions, to writers dreaming of renown.
Speculative fiction has moved closer to the mainstream; our big general publishers publish fiction regardless of the genre, with some small press publishers concentrating in speculative fiction.
At the present time, there isn’t any strong domestic production of romantic fiction in Finland, and the genre of “science fiction romance” simply doesn’t exist. Where science fiction does include romantic relationships and passionate encounters, those may have sometimes a significant, sometimes a minor, role in the story.
As a group, what have you written that may have relevance to SFwRE [Science Fiction with Romantic Elements]?
Magdalena H: My main work during the last few years has been the steampunk trilogy Gigi ja Henry (Gigi and Henry); its third volume Susikuningatar (The Wolf Queen) was published in August 2014. I have also written a children’s picture book and several short stories. I wouldn’t necessarily describe romance as being the main feature of my work, but it is always part of the story. I like to write about the encounters between characters, and these often involve romance, erotism and love as a natural element. After all, love is a big part of our lives!
In my stories love often appears as a thing that sustains the characters and gives them comfort. For instance in my short story Siivekäs mies Isaac (The Winged Man Isaac) two protagonists, who have undergone great hardships and lost practically everything that matters to them, meet each other in the middle of a violent urban war. On the other hand, sometimes the love that I describe can be a little twisted, as in my short story Vaskimorsian (The Brass Bride), where a man cannot cope with his fiancée’s death, but reawakens her as a machine. (The story is a tribute to the sf and horror classics of the 19th C.)
In the Gigi and Henry series, on the other hand, I wanted to write about the experience of first love. I think first love is one of the most significant loves in a person’s life. Gigi and Henry are best friends, who both fall in love, separately, for the first time during the series. In Gigi’s case, I wanted to catch the innocence of a very young love. When Gigi meets Naseem, she’s only 12 years old, and doesn’t actually understand that she’s in fact falling in love. It was challenging to write the story of Gigi and Naseem in a way that celebrates the strength and intensity of first love. First love is important. Everybody remembers their first kiss. Henry, however, is older when he falls in love, and his feelings are the true, more mature love of a young man. It was very different to write about Henry’s love, perhaps also because the story did not end well. I felt very cruel writing it.
JSM: I have written three epic fantasy novels and a trilogy of novelettes representing erotic picaresque fantasy. I’ve also published several short stories. Here I’d like to mention a romantic story of woman pilot meeting a saboteur in a post-apocalyptic future, and two steampunk short stories set in an alternative history Paris, Augustine and Alexandre. I’ve also edited steampunk anthologies.
Ann L: I’ve specialized in shared authoring, and together with Eija Lappalainen we have written a series of novels called Routasisarukset (The Frost Siblings). It is an ecological sf-dystopy set in the 2300s Europe. In this future world, adoptions and polyamoric relationships are the basis of human relations. Of my own personal creations I might mention the novel Viivamaalari (The Line Painter), where even the mating relationships are decided by lottery. My short stories often include fatal love relationships, which generally have no happy ending.
LOL. Why is that? Is it hard to write an ending of “happily ever after”?
Magdalena H: I don’t think it’s any harder than an unhappy ending. I live intensely with my characters, whatever their fate, good or bad. I also believe that well-constructed characters will support the story plausibly up to the end; one could even say that a character that’s sufficiently alive and real will define how her/his story will end. S/he can only make certain choices and react in a certain way.
JSM: It happens. Sometimes, when writing, you notice that a superhappy ending would disintegrate the story line, but on the other hand, it might be a slap in the reader’s face if there’s no happy ending—that’s what is expected in a romance, after all. But when you’ve started with the expectation of writing a romantic story that leaves the reader in bliss, you’ve got to redeem your promise. Often, however, it’s just a question of where to end the story. The story form also affects this: in a concise short story it’s easy to keep a light tone, but with novels you’ll often go so much deeper that surprises will be the rule rather than an exception.
Ann L: Especially in my short stories, love and romance often motivate the action, and will even lead to tragic consequences. In novel-length stories I’ve had the patience to construct happier endings. In my recent novel of alternate history and future, Ilottomien ihmisten kylä (The Village of the Dour People), a budding romance is the central factor in the protagonist’s decisions.
Magdalena and J.S., if you don’t mind me saying so, you both use a pseudonym, and you are known for your steampunk cosplay. How important is it to the both of you to engage yourself personally as authors, in order to create the atmosphere of the story?
MH: To me, the milieu and the world are of primary importance for the story. They have to feel authentic. That requires a personal involvement. On the other hand, one can always ask how much this kind of approach to writing comes from just being the kind of person I am? I do everything wholeheartedly. Using a pseudonym to write is part of that personality trait. When I take the role of an author, I become slightly a different person. Perhaps by separating my author self from my everyday self, I’m able to jump in to things and situations where my everyday self would tread cautiously. An author has to be able to engage herself totally, because what touches the writer’s heart, will also touch the reader’s.
What fascinates me in steampunk is the blending of the literature and the aesthetics. I can both write steampunk and apply it visually in my own life. On the other hand, to some extent writing steampunk stories and steampunk cosplay are separate areas in my life, since the dressing-up is connected to doing things with my hands and being interested in the cultural history of the 19th century, while my writing is based on my longer “career” as a reader and writer of science fiction.
JSM: To me a writer’s job seems rather two-sided : there are the long, lonely phases of writing, and there are the public performances which the publishers and the books demand. The transitions between a social and an asocial state sometimes feel burdensome. I’ve noticed that to clearly assume an author’s role eases the transition. Writing is a very private state, and a role is necessary when you meet the outside world. Dressing-up, engaging yourself wholly and maintaining a sense of play reinforce the role. And since being a writer isn’t my only job, it seems especially important to separate the professional roles. Dressing-up and fooling about also help to create collegial community spirit and one’s public image as a writer, but I don’t think that they’d have anything special to do with writing or creating a story. The stories are born from an internal necessity, and the writer’s public role is an external necessity. The person however stays the same, whatever the role.
This year, the Finnish literature had a prominent place in the Frankfurt Book Fair. For instance such authors as Johanna Sinisalo, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen and Emmi Itäranta are accessible in English. What do you see as the special features of the Finnish science fiction genre?
MH: I think the strength of the Finnish science fiction lies in its credible and distinctive characters and in the inherent strangeness caused by being, on some level, outsiders. The Finns are a small, separate nation, different linguistically and culturally even from our closest neighbours, the Scandinavian countries and Russia. We are used to looking at things from the outside, as observers.
We also have a historically strong ideal of an equal society, and though there’s still need for improvement, women have for a long time been equal and visible actors in the Finnish society. Therefore Finnish prose, and especially the speculative fiction, has strong female characters in abundance (whatever the writer’s gender), and the portrayal of gender and ethnicity is rather pluralistic, unaffected and smooth.
JSM: It’s quite a challenge to approach this topic from the inside: when you belong to the group of writers yourself, all comparisons are necessarily rather subjective. Offhand I’d say that the Finnish speculative fiction exhibits a highly literary style of expression—and it’s very ambitious. Actually, very little of the kind of science fiction that aims for light entertainment has been written here. At the moment, however, the field of speculative writers has spawned a crowd of active writers who also want to publish stories that are more playful, humorous and unashamedly entertaining.
I’ve also observed that merely the Finnish way of seeing and thinking about things may, from the standpoint of a foreigner, produce a strangeness and charm which a Finnish reader wouldn’t even notice. As if something we perceive as realistic, another reader would consider basically fantastic.
MH: Our science fiction is alive and versatile also because the country’s overall level of education is quite high and we are technologically oriented as a people. Johanna Sinisalo in her book Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (Not before Sundown) caught hold of something very essential about Finland and the Finns: We are a people of bright-eyed futurists in troll-skins.
I like that comparison! You are all members in the small press cooperative Osuuskumma (“Co-op Weird”). What kind of texts does it publish, and how do you assess the significance of this publishing activity?
MH: Osuuskumma was founded to meet the need for high-quality Finnish speculative fiction for adults. As a consequence of the genre categories traditional in the publishing field, most big publishers even today quite automatically categorize speculative fiction as YA-literature or literature for younger readers. This affects the kind of fiction that is published, and how the selected manuscripts are revised to suit different target groups. We wanted to offer a publication channel for the more marginal manuscripts of speculative fiction aimed for adult readers, including professional editing, cover design and distribution channels.
Osuuskumma publishes annually several thematic anthologies, plus some 2-3 short story collections or individual novels. We publish a wide spectrum of speculative fiction: science fiction, alternative history, steampunk, fantasy and new-weird. So far our only translated publication (from English) has been The Jaguar and the Butterfly, a wonderful collection of six short stories by Aliette de Bodard.
Ann L: The small press activity broadens the Finnish publishing field. Since large prints or profit are not the goal, there is room for marginal voices to be heard. The authors have also become active doers, who themselves find out about the professional practices of publishing—and try to change them after due consideration. For instance, Osuuskumma has taken the line of publishing e-books cheap and DRM-free.
JSM: The publishing programme includes diverse formats from drabbles [short pieces of fiction exactly one hundred words in length –Ed.] to full-length novels, but at the moment we are probably best known for our quality anthologies. Our writers have been well represented on the shortlists of “The Year’s Best Short Story”; during our two years of existence, even the winners have come from our anthologies.
Since Osuuskumma is a cooperative, it mainly publishes the texts of its members, but that’s by no means automatic. We have our own Editorial Board that chooses only the best of the submitted manuscripts. One of our core functions is to help our members’ professional development of their literary career.
Small-press publishing is very rewarding, though it takes a lot of willpower and tenacity. It has its own freedom, when you can actively participate in the group and know that you’ll get both candid feedback and support even for the crazier projects. There’s freedom to experiment and to try different things. For instance, Osuuskumma offers a drabble-service, where the subscriber receives a drabble twice a week by e-mail, plus at the end of the year a printed anthology of the published drabbles. We’ve also made drabble postcards and organized steampunk parties, where people have constructed steampunk poems and engaged in drabble battles!
It’s especially great to work with so many gifted and enthusiastic persons. There’s power in the people!
I see that one product of Osuuskumma is the speculative romantic magazine, Ursula. Please tell us more about it.
MH: Ursula is a biannual e-zine of short stories concentrating on romantic speculative fiction. It’s free of charge, and anybody may submit their stories to the editors. We wish to encourage new rising talents to publish their texts through this medium, and on the other hand, perhaps even invite new readers to try some “weird fiction”.
JS: Ursula is our common effort to present light romantic speculative fiction to the readers. It’s getting harder and harder to get a short story published in the printed zines—there are too many good short stories compared to the space available in them—and particularly the short stories with a light tone and happy ending find it hard to compete with the more serious ones. Ursula also functions as a display window to our publishing.
Ann L: I see Ursula as an important part of our sf-fandom’s publishing tradition, but also as an innovator. So far, e-books haven’t been a great success in Finland. That’s partly caused by the pricing policy (an e-book often costs no less than a hard-back print), partly because the hardware basis is so heterogeneous it slows the introduction of e-books. Ursula accustomes the readers to take up fiction in the e-book form—and at the same time, it offers a much needed publishing channel to the short stories.
What are your thoughts on more romantic science fiction being published in Finland? Do you think it’s feasible for such stories to be translated into English? And, given such an assignment, what kind of books would you three write within the genre?
MH: Romantic science fiction (with special emphasis on the romance) would indubitably be something new. In Finland we do already have loads of novels in the romantic fantasy and paranormal romance genres, but I think traditionally we are still used to thinking about those genres as “the romantic kind” of speculative fiction, while science fiction is perceived in a straight technological frame. But one might suppose that especially the new, up-and-coming generation of writers has fewer prejudices than the previous, and they might also see a possibility for romance in science fiction. The popularity of steampunk in its part will surely upset and perhaps even break some of these invisible psychological barriers.
I believe that Finnish speculative fiction would have a lot to give on the literary market were it translated more. Science fiction is based on new scenarios and fresh points of view, and I’d bet we have those to offer. I hope, that with the publicity Finland received in the Frankfurt Book Fair, more and more foreign publishers will find their way to the high quality Finnish science fiction.
JSM: Of course it should be published more, as long as it’s of high quality. There’s never enough of good literature, and I think that a variety of supply will serve all the actors in the field at the end (even if its abundance sometimes feels frustrating!). Certainly more books ought to be translated into English: though the native English supply already is huge and varied, it wouldn’t do any harm to get additional and different tones considering also the ethnic background.
I usually have several different writing projects going on, and one of them is a romantic science fantasy adventure of a group that is saved from a burning spaceship and is threatened by an inevitable death in an escape pod. It’s a rather traditional thriller in a closed space, where the secrets and emotions make people behave unpredictably.
Ann L: Osuuskumma’s Ursula might well produce an edition concentrating on SFR. Perhaps we’ll all three write something for it? So far, however, Ursula is only available in Finnish, and our work still awaits translation.
Anne, Magdalena and JS, thank you very much for sharing your opinions with us. For those readers who will be in/near Europe next summer, there will be a Nordic con called ARCHIPELAGON at Åland (an island between Finland and Sweden). Nordic fiction will be heavily represented. For the con, there will be a new edition of the web-zine Usva, where you will be able to read both Magdalena’s and J.S.’s short stories in English. A short story by Anne is available in an earlier English-language edition of Usva.
And let’s not forget that the Finns have made a bid for the Worldcon 2017 in Helsinki! We wish them all the best with that!