Monday, January 16, 2012

Very old Finnish science fiction

Two friends and colleagues of mine, Vesa Sisättö and Jari Koponen, compiled one of the most interesting books of 2011. The book was published to almost no publicity and I've seen only one review of the book. The book, called Aivopeili / The Brain Mirror, is a collection of two essays, a bibliography and some fifteen short science fiction stories. The stories are mainly from Finnish authors from the early 19th century to the year of independence, 1917. There are also seven stories from foreign writers like Jack London, H. C. Andersen and Kurd Lasswitz. The translations of those seven stories are taken from the ancient Finnish fictionmags or newspapers. The book shows how science fiction made its way to Finland during the Russian rule in the 19th century.

There are some intriguing stories in the book. The first science fiction story written in Finland was published in 1803 (which strictly speaking was six years before the Russian rule), by a man called Gabriel Israel Hartman. Jari Koponen states in his introduction that this is the first story in the annals of literature to depict a microcosmos! Hartman writes about a fantasy of how the narrator makes his way into a small world through a microscope and notices that microcosmos contains a lot more other miniature worlds. The story predates "The Diamond Lens" by Fitz-James O'Brien by 50 years.

The book also contains some utopies, many of which are about the reversal of the gender roles. I think Fredrika Runeberg's story about the theme is the best in the bunch, but the other stories show how the fear of women's emancipation has taken hold of the public imagination. There's also a hilarious story called "Ratkaisu / The Solution" that's about exploding Finland off the continent in order to stop the war about fresh water. The writer of the story was called "TRT", of whom nothing is known.

The foreign stories may seem odd in the book, since one might think they'd benefit if they were translated now straight from the original language. But this solution, to keep the old translations intact (aside some small edits), makes the stories come alive in their own time and context and we can see the influences the stories really had on the readers of the time. I think the best of those stories is by German writer Carl Grunert: the story "The Spy" is a fast-paced mystery story about the invasion of the Martians. The titular story is by Kurd Lasswitz, who's pretty well-known, but I think his story was marred by sensational narration and poor dialogue (which of course may be a result of a bad translation).

I strongly recommend the book (for the Finnish-language readers, of course) and would like to see someone tackle translating Gabriel Hartman's story in English!

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