Novel review: “Summerland” by Hannu Rajaniemi

By | December 28, 2018

After having just released an E-book, I decided to allow myself the pleasure of reading an English novel (generally, I am either doing translations or reading Japanese works). I choose “Summerland”, a book released in 2018 by Hannu Rajaniemi, who happens to be the author of “The Quantum Thief”, a SF novel that was released back in 2010. The latter novel is actually one of my favorite books, so it’s fair to say I had a lot of expectations coming in. I really disliked the flashy, abstract cover of “Summerland”, and had it not been my previous experience with this author I may never have read the book.

Having read “The Quantum Thief” around the time when it came out (I bought it, in all places, at a bookstore in London on a whim), I remember very little of the story, except that it was extremely inventive, involved heavy use of science, and was very fast-paced. A few years ago I did re-read part of the first chapter and was reminded how great it was.

Unfortunately, the first chapter of “Summerland” was a pretty big disappointment, at least when comparing it to TQT. While there was a sufficient amount of action, it didn’t compare to TQT, and the science element seemed mostly lacking. I wasn’t motivated to keep reading, but because I knew how good of an author Rajaniemi could be, I continued onwards.

At this point I must explain something about myself that colored my view of this entire book: the fact that I am generally not a big fan of stories involving a lot of politics, nor stories about alternate history (Summerland is set in the early/mid 20th century). From cover to cover this book is heavy in both, so those favoring such stories would likely enjoy this more than I did.

Having said that, after reading a few chapters I realized there was something great about this book––the expert world-building of Rajaniemi. To paraphrase (and simplify) what is on the inside book cover: “Summerland” is set in a world where the afterlife has been discovered and the living world has learned to interact with Summerland, a city in the afterlife.

Without a doubt my favorite thing about this book is how Rajaniemi has put so much thought into the science behind the afterlife. I’ll mostly omit details here since some would surely consider it spoiling the fun, but there is a variety of “technology” involved in communication, transportation, and interacting with spirits, plus various details about the afterlife itself which are intriguing. To give one small example, there is the “ectophone” which allows speaking to those in the afterlife. While this naming sounds a little cheesy to me (perhaps intentional on Rajaniemi’s part), the way all this technology fits into these two worlds, plus the enhanced “rules” of this reality, is really convincing to me. While the word was not explicitly used anywhere, I think Steampunk shares much in common with the setting of this book.

The story itself revolves around a host of members of various government and other political groups, and what part they play in important events in these two worlds. Like I said, the politics itself I didn’t enjoy too much (frankly, in a few places I struggled to keep up with all the names, groups, and their motivations), but I think this book’s complex, yet carefully-written storyline deserves praise.

I also liked how the technology/worldbuilding aspects were skillfully interwoven with the characters and plot itself. There was little, if any showy “cool” technology that was not important to the overarching story by the end. On the other hand, part of me actually wanted to see more of the world and more of it’s technology and semantics, and I feel that TQT had more of that and maybe a little less story (though that story was also quite complex from what I remember, but in a different way). Similarly, while Math and Science were explicitly leveraged in a few parts (with references to proofs, equations, and paradoxes), I felt those elements could have been strengthened or emphasized even more in Summerland.

Being familiar with Japanese and the culture of Japan, I am sensitive to uses of those things in popular fiction. This book does once or twice make a minor reference to a group of “Samurai” in the afterlife. This was a little displeasing to me; using things from Japanese culture in such a fashion reminded me of early cyberpunk, and in 2018 it just feels a little inappropriate. Fortunately, it was not part of the main story.

While I mentioned in the introduction reading this book for pleasure, I also used this opportunity as proofreading practice, and to help learn more about a professional writer’s sentence structure and other elements of writing good prose. Reading books on learning to write better can only go so far, I think the best learning comes when you take a close look at real books and draw your own conclusions.

Given the massive success of TQT, I’m sure there was a lot of budget and care put in to make sure it was properly edited, and as expected the overall quality was really good. My expectations were met: I only caught two obvious mistakes in the whole book, one extremely minor (a lack of italics consistent with other passages) and a misspelled character name. The latter was a little surprising since using a dictionary should catch this type of error, assuming you add the character’s names. Nonetheless, two other books I read this year were riddled with errors so this was a breath of fresh air.

Overall, Rajaniemi’s style is quite readable, and while he does make up a few terms critical to worldbuilding, they are eventually explained in enough depth to make things easy to follow. Paragraphs are short to medium length (rarely, if ever, longer than a third of a page), and sentences are also generally pretty short without a lot of roundabout grammar. He uses metaphors sparingly, but when he does they are generally effective. As is with much popular fiction these days, much of the story is heavily dialogue driven. I noticed a few other characteristics of his writing, like how occasionally he will start a sentence with an adverb followed by a comma, an interesting pattern that I want to try using myself.

Overall, I would describe his style as no-nonsense, using the minimum set of words to describe things without much ornate or flowery prose. For that reason, I don’t think excerpts from this book are likely to be quoted for their timeless beauty––after all, Rajaniemi is a mathematical physicist by trade. But on the other hand, I felt like I had a lot to learn from his efficient style, and would like to gradually work to improve both my translations and my own writings in this vein. In one of my translations projects I remember realizing how I was was overusing “like” to render similies, and while reading this book I came across a few different ways Rajaniemi had used different turns of phrase in description to avoid too much repetition. (One of them was “in the manner of…”)

Taking a step back, while this book had a handful of really memorable scenes and some great world-building, I feel it pales in comparison to TQT. Another reason this book lost points for me is it shared some things in common with one of my other favorite books of all time, “The City & The City”, by China Mieville, plus a few things with “The Last Days of New Paris”, another great book by that author. Whereas Summerland had me sometimes bored by its frequent plot twists set upon a skillfully-crafted universe, these two works of Mieville kept me more emotionally involved throughout, and I was more impacted by their conclusions.

“Summerland” was the first book I read where reading the acknowledgements disappointed me. The first reason was that the author said he had a writers group dissect his early synopsis and chapter drafts. While there is nothing wrong with getting help to improve the quality of a book, the number of people the term “writers group” implies to me seems a bit extreme, especially considering he is a best-selling writer. Also, Rajaniemi thanks someone for suggesting the book’s ending. I wanted to avoid speaking too much about the ending here, but this makes it sound like he wrote most of the story and then someone else thought of some key part at the end. For sure, there is nothing wrong with getting ideas from others, but given some complaints I had about the book, it further lowered my impression of the story.

While I did enjoy Summerland, if you want to see Rajaniemi at his best I would definitely check out “The Quantum Thief” first, as well as the other two books in that series.

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