It's been six years since my first Hannu Rajaniemi novel stunned me with its sheer number of high concept ideas and the ease with which the author strung them together. It's almost four years since I finished the trilogy that book began and, while the details have faded over time, a host of those ideas are still bouncing around my head. I don't believe I've read anything like it in the years since.
Now Rajaniemi is back with a fourth novel, unrelated to his earlier trilogy and, I believe, a standalone book. It's an alternate history spy fantasy, of all things, spawned from ideas as wild as anything in the Jean le Flambeur books and built on more of them, but in a more restrained fashion so there aren't anywhere near as many of them in play at once. As fantastic as that trilogy was, there were many points where I struggled to keep up. This is a lot easier to get into and a lot easier to follow.
We're in 1938, but an alternate one where the Germans do not appear to be a threat. Instead, the British Empire is worried about the Soviets, especially with an exiled Stalin apparently aiming to take over Spain from the fascists of Gen. Franco. To complicate things, there's the Summerland of the title, a location not in this world but the next, a home to the newly dead.
I liked this idea in this timeframe. The Victorians played with spirituality a lot and this is a real exploration into what might have happened had they really found something. Death changes meaning entirely when it's no longer a mysterious end. Religion has to adapt. War becomes something very different. We can even chat with our dead relatives and invite them to dinner, inside a rented body.
There are also different cultural ways to explore the afterlife. The British merely expand into it just like it's another country to take over. The SIS, or Secret Intelligence Service, now has two branches: the Winter Court here on this side of the veil and the Summer Court on the other. The Soviets, on the other hand, are far more imaginative. Because communism has no god, they built one, the Presence, a vast intellect into whose embrace all their dead flow.
And, while we're wondering about all sorts of little things, there's a plot unfolding. A Soviet defector, shortly before committing suicide, gives up a name to the agent present. There is a mole in the SIS. His codename is FELIX and his real name is Peter Bloom. Of course, this isn't easily provable and Bloom turns out to be so well-connected that he's deemed untouchable. After all, the prime minister himself vouched for him. He's also dead, an agent of the Summer Court.
All of those things complicate the investigation that the agent-in-question, Rachel White, undertakes after being promptly demoted from the field to the ranks of numbercrunchers in the Finance Division. She's helped by a further dead agent, under the cover of helping her care for finches, but she doesn't know who else she can go to. Surely not her former boss, but how about Joe, her husband who's still traumatised from his experiences in the Great War, or any number of others?
This isn't a huge book, running just over three hundred pages, but there's a lot here. The plot is appropriately convoluted and would work as a spy novel with all the fantastic elements removed. The tech is interesting but not the wildly imaginative application of ideas to be found throughout the author's more overtly sf prior trilogy. The period is neatly explored, with a host of recognisable names, enough that I wonder about some of the others.
Some are clearly real people. Sir Oliver Lodge was a renowned physicist who believed in spiritualism and attempted to bring the two worlds together. He is exactly who I'd expect to see in this book, but he's only mentioned at a few points in asides, just like Guglielmo Marconi. Real spies get mentions and some dialogue, including Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, both of whom were real British agents really working for the Soviets, though we don't get into that here in fiction.
Others are hidden behind false names, which can be a little more confusing. The British Prime Minister here, for example, is Herbert Blanco West, who I assumed initially was a take on Winston Churchill but who turns out to be a more overt take on H. G. Wells instead. I wnoder how many other characters are not entirely conjured out of the imagination of the author.
As with the Jean le Flambeur trilogy, however, it's surely going to be the ideas that stay with me, some of which are here to prop up the core concept of the Summerland but others of which merely add flavour. Death is no longer anything to be afraid of, as long as you have your four dimensional ticket. Diagnosed with cancer? No worries. Just choose euthanasia and carry on as a member of the newly dead. With no need for serious care, medicine is deemed less important. And, of course, if we know what happens when we die, faiths-a-plenty have to restructure what Heaven is. The dead do fade, so maybe the faithful do end up in Heaven but have to go through Summerland to get there.
Rajaniemi is a mathematician and there was a lot of high level maths in his Jean le Flambeur trilogy. It's here too, but there's a lot less of it and it has less importance to the story at hand. Summerland has more than our three dimensions, for a start, and at least some of its buildings are tesseracts. Blenheim Palace over there is a hypercube. It makes storage a lot easier.
Perhaps the lack of high level maths is a reason why this novel is easier to get into. Rajaniemi's worst aspect is surely explanation, not because he's a bad explainer but because he doesn't think it's needed as much as it is. The need here is a lot less so we're able to pick up what's going on quicker and stay with it easier. I liked it early on, the film noir tone working well in a supernatural and spiritual yarn, but I liked it more as it went along. The worldbuilding is exquisite and I wanted to stay and learn more.
Rajaniemi isn't the most prolific author on the planet, so I'm not sure when we'll see another novel from him. I'll be paying attention when it shows up though. Summerland underlines how he writes things utterly unlike any other author and that's something I value. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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