Pasi Karppanen: A look at current Finnish science fiction
(Translated by Liisa Rantalaiho)
(Cosmos Pen 2/2003)
Domestic science fiction and fantasy as a genre in Finland is still searching for itself. Numerically, there are around ten – fifteen domestic sf/f books published annually. The majority of that number, however, consists of children's and juvenile literature. At the worst, only one or two so called 'real', serious domestic sf/f books are published each year.
The difference is enormous compared to the whole publishing field. In translation sf/f literature gets published in many times that amount. Also compared with the annual domestic mainstream prose, sf/f is just a fraction. Children's and juvenile literature and on the other hand, science fiction and fantasy seem to be closely related. Seems what is "forbidden" in the Finnish mainstream prose is allowed in children's books.
During the last years a group of writers has emerged in Finland who have been inspired by the current fantasy boom all over the world and decided to exploit the marketing niche by mass producing their own, mostly juvenile fantasy books. Unfortunately, the rather mediocre literary merits of the works have not convinced the fandom. They aren't any good advertisement for fantasy literature either.
Mainstream and sf/f
The main problem of the sf/f published in Finland is that the most part of it is produced by mainstream writers. They use it as just a spice in their books, without knowing its conventions or history. The tradition of realism has always been very strong in Finland and therefore this trick has become quite popular and many well-known domestic authors have experimented with the sf genre.
Mostly these experiments have been rather primitive, according to sf criteria. The mainstream critics have, however, been bowled over by admiration. Since they have no information of how worn-out the ideas have been they see those as daring avant-garde literary experiments.
Something like that lay also behind well-known sf short story writer Johanna Sinisalo's first novel Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (Not Before Sundown) (2000) and its Finlandia award. The event itself was unprecedented for Finnish sf/f, just considering its publicity value. Finlandia is the foremost Finnish literary award and the situation might well be compared to Ursula K. Le Guin unexpectedly winning the Nobel literary price!
The book itself, however, is sf only very marginally. Sinisalo herself has even said that she doesn't consider her book to be science fiction at all! She has said she merely tried to write a mainstream work with speculative elements on the background. We cannot blame Sinisalo for this, of course. On the contrary, because of the award and Sinisalo herself, domestic science fiction received a huge amount of positive publicity during the Finlandia year.
What happened can be seen as one more example of the underdevelopment of Finnish literary circles when it comes to sf. The speculative element in Sinisalo's novel is pretty thin from an sf-reader's point of view, but for the mainstream public an idea of trolls as a species of big game was enough to raise it up from the mass. Sinisalo's book has also been quite a literary success story. In a few years, it has been translated into seven languages.
There are other examples of the use of sf effects and the indiscrimination of the mainstream public. One is for instance the eco-catastrophe description in Risto Isomäki's Herääminen (The Awakening). Isomäki himself in no novice in science fiction, he has published a collection of short stories and two novels, all of them showing clear promise.
The major part of Isomäki's published works, however, is non-fiction and connected to his background as an activist in the environmental issues. The same aspect is discernible in The Awakening, which is a description of a run-away hothouse effect. The book is a cardboard-like, popularised description of a possible ecocatastrophe and its literary merits are rather weak. Yet even those sf elements were enough to elevate it to the notice of Finnish media.
For the majority of authors, science fiction even seems to be some kind of a red rag. Ilkka Remes, the Finnish counterpart to Tom Clancy and the success story of the late 1990's, got clearly scared about the sf reputation of his first book, Pääkallokehrääjä (Death's-head hawk moth). The novel is a political thriller taking place in an alternative Finland, where it's become part of the Soviet Union because of different events in the Second World War. Remes himself, however, denied that his book would be anything even remotely approaching sf and since then he has kept his distance to the genre.
Another author, although with a very different kind of literary expression, is Jyrki Vainonen, who also has been noted among the domestic fandom for his two short story collections. Vainonen himself says that his work represents surrealism, and he has seemed uncomfortable about the fact his books are classified as 'fantasy'. He appears to see fantastic literature only as fairy-tales, such as Narnia or Lord of the Rings, though it of course is a very much wider field.
Science fiction and fantasy seem to currently have definite commercial potential that has not yet been properly exploited, at least not by the domestic writers. Or let us say that the will and the skill to produce it have not yet met. The actual domestic science fiction and fantasy today are not found in book length prose, but on the pages of genre magazines and fanzines. There we also find the most interesting work of the genre, the best writers, and therefore also the greatest hopes for future.
The Finnish field of sf/f fanzines
Characteristic for the Finnish field of sf/f fanzines is the total lack of commercial magazines. There have been several attempts during the last couple of decades to start a commercial sf/f magazine, but they have always failed. Instead, around ten good quality fanzines are published in the country. Truth to tell, a fanzine is a somewhat misleading expression, for the best of them are on full prozine level and quality-wise they hold their own against any commercial sf magazine.
The most successful or at least the most widespread current Finnish sf/f magazine is Portti (Gateway), published by the Tampere Science Fiction Society. In twenty years it has developed to an sf magazine of over a hundred pages and printed on glossy paper. The magazine is available even at public newsstands and is probably the gateway to domestic sf for most of those unfamiliar with the genre. One could say Portti comes closest to filling the market niche of a possible commercial sf magazine.
Portti acquires the major part of its material from the short story contest it organizes yearly. Just as the magazine, the contest, too, has expanded in twenty years. Nowadays its main prize is 2000 euros. Over two hundred short stories are sent to the contest each year and it is by now undoubtedly the most important literary contest in the field of domestic sf/f. Although Portti's good results in the domestic sf field are undeniable, it dominates the domestic writing field almost too completely. Many sf fans and writers know the Portti contest, but not the other sf fanzines.
What may seem surprising from a foreign viewpoint is that in Portti's case the writers get no other pay for their stories except the prizes given out in the contest (for 'honorary mentions' that's only some tens of euros). The practice like in the USA, for instance, where writers get paid (for the number of words in the story) is completely unknown in Finland.
A new effort alongside the Portti contest is the NOVA short story contest; a cooperation project between the Finnish Science Fiction Writers' Association and Turku Science Fiction Society. The prices are nowhere near the level of Portti (the NOVA winner gets 400 euros), but in spite of that, the contest has in a few years expanded to almost the same level as far as the number of submissions are concerned at least.
The goal of the NOVA contest is not to compete with the Portti contest, but to encourage new writers and offer the writers the chance for feedback Portti cannot give. Everybody who has sent a text receives a feedback from the jury if they so wish. One cannot yet speak about editorial writer guidance here either, but at least it is a step towards the right direction.
Trends in domestic sf/f
Short story form sf/f has rather actively been written in Finland already now for twenty years and the field of domestic writers has during the while acquired its own special character.
One very typical feature of the domestic sf is apparent in its relation to the distinction between science fiction and fantasy. To be exact, a major part of the current domestic sf/f is neither science fiction nor fantasy, at least not in the most traditional meaning. Naturally there are cases where one can definitely place the story on one or the other side of the fence, but most texts are rather placed in some indefinite 'grey area' between the pure genres.
There's one especially interesting type of story that has developed in the field of Finnish sf, and that doesn't even have a name yet. These stories are mostly placed in Finnish everyday reality, where mysterious events and elements start to appear. The stories are not science fiction, neither are they fantasy or horror.
This type has very much been in evidence in the Portti contest and it would be interesting to know how much it is due to the jury's conscious or unconscious guidance through rewarding a certain type of stories, how much writing such 'fantastic' stories of everyday reality simply fits with the Finnish national character. At least the definite minor key and melancholy that are generally characteristic for Finnish sf may easily be accounted for by the Scandinavian character.
The one specific feature of domestic sf/f that one certainly can blame the Portti contest for is that stories have become longer and longer during the years. The stories currently written in Finland and especially those well placed in the Portti contest are actually no longer short stories, but rather novelettes and novellas. That longer stories have ended up in the first place time after time has contributed to the vicious cycle.
Some actually think that the Portti contest should no longer be called a short story contest at all, but rather a contest of "miniature prose". Most longer stories already have a clear novel-like structure and indeed, many see them as substitutes for novels when the writers are in a situation where sf/f manuscripts being accepted by a commercial publisher feels a complete utopia.
During the last decade there have been several trends in the domestic sf/f of which most have been visible through the Portti contest. One interesting feature is how the stories reflect the Finnish society. For instance, when Finland experienced a harsh economic depression in the early 1990's, it was later reflected in the stories. In the beginning of the decade, Finland also experienced its own small scale 'new wave'.
A trend of its own was also the short but intensive Lovecraft boom, visible in the Finnish fanzines in the 1990's, when domestic writers continued the work of Lovecraft and started building their own network of stories around the Ctulhu mythology. The remains of the boom are still somewhat visible in the texts of the domestic writers. Again, one might conclude that the anxiety provoking tones that are an essential part of this genre fit very well with the Finnish emotion palette.
Visions of future
Today there is a great number of writers on the domestic field who would have both the abilities and realistic chances for a wider breakthrough in literature. In a sense, the same development was probably expected by many already in the 1980's, during the 'first generation' of the Finnish fandom. Some works were indeed written by the names of the domestic fandom at that time, but a broader appearance of the field did not then take place.
In a way that is understandable. Sf as genre was by that time so new and the general knowledge of the field so thin that it would have been unfair to expect a whole new literary generation from a group of few fan writers. During the last decade, however, within the bosom of fandom a large group of writers have grown up, and they possess a completely different readiness for a literary breakthrough.
Also the work done by the domestic fandom to increase the general appreciation of the genre has created a completely different situation than the one two decades earlier. If these writers, however, dare not leave the safe 'duck pond' of short story sf, this generation will encounter the same blind alley as the former. Reasons for why the breakthrough has not happened yet, or why it did not happen during the earlier generation, are various.
One is the already mentioned lack of commercial sf magazines. Since there are no commercial magazines and the whole field is oriented towards contests, the whole idea of earning money by writing is alien to the writers. Thus, the leap from a fan writer sending one's texts year after year to the Portti contest, to a professional writer fighting for grants and publishing contracts remains too big.
In a way, one can well understand the writers' hesitation. There are after all the economic reasons to consider. As mentioned already, in practice all current writers who publish short stories in Finland are fan writers. There is no one in Finland writing sf/f professionally, and the writers have to do their writing somewhere betwixt their ordinary jobs, during their free time and at the cost of their family life.
Reasons can also be sought in the general publishing situation. A foreign name on the book cover always sells better than a Finnish one and the majority of domestic publishing houses concentrate in practice only on translated science fiction and fantasy.
There's also the unfortunate aspect of domestic fanzines that makes it difficult for the writers to become more widely known. The fanzine readers and the wider public of sf/f readers are basically two different audiences.
On the other hand, there is the core of domestic fandom that follows actively both translated sf/f and the genre at large and also reads the domestic fanzines and the short stories published in them. The wider buying public, however, reads mostly translated sf/f, mainly because domestic works are not to be found on the bookshop and library shelves. These readers have never heard of most of the domestic short story writers.
For this public, the domestic production of the genre is represented by juvenile mass production so it is no wonder that the domestic sf/f does not have a very good reputation among them. The division between the two publics is quite visible and thus far there is no sign of it getting broken.
There may be, however, some light at the end of tunnel. During the last couple of years several writers who have started among the fandom have made their debut on the Finnish literary field, either with a collection of short stories or with a novel. In a few years, more domestic science fiction and fantasy has been seen than during several earlier decades put together. The situation thus looks promising and gives reason for hope.
At times, there have been some voices among the fandom telling that one should not even try to create a special niche of domestic science fiction or fantasy literature, since that would only mean its conscious isolation, out of the reach of domestic mainstream readers and the readers of translated sf/f as well. Instead of this there should be a continuum of literature, with 'speculative elements' of differing degrees, where sf/f would be a natural part of the rest of domestic literature.
This might well be the way where the development is leading. Such a situation might also be beneficial in that the writers would have a chance to create a literary career and be appreciated by the other domestic authors. Only time will tell what will happen to the domestic science fiction and fantasy.
The day when we would have our own professional cadre of sf/f writers earning their living by writing may at the present be a distant utopia, but it is a goal to strive forward to.
Originally published in Cosmos Pen 2/2003. All rights reserved.