Finnisches Feuer—for the English speakers, Finnish Fire—was originally published in 2013 under the Finnish title Auringon Ydin. In 2014, it was translated into German by Stefan Moster, published by Tropen Roman, and a great big deal was made of it at the Frankfurt Book Fair. However, it has never been translated into English. Well, somebody really should get on that. Sinisalo is a writer I want to see more of, and oh how I would love to be able to discuss this book with my English-speaking book nerd friends. Just look at all the things on her bibliography! Sinisalo is just one of many (many many many) convincing arguments for getting more translated speculative fiction onto the English-language market.
The premise of FF is this: in a Finnish surveillance state run by the Ministry of Health where every potentially unhealthy substance is illegal (no coffee, no alcohol, etc), people get high on chilis. Through government-enforced selective breeding, there are now two classes of women, named for the creatures of one of H.G. Wells’ futures: the Elois (breeders, “made” to be submissive and please men) and the Morlocks (all the other ladies). There are also two classes of men: Maskos (your typical manly man alpha duder) and Minusmänner (minus men, or “lesser” men), though the male classes get very little attention in this narrative.
Getting high on chilis sounds absurd, and this absurdity does not diminish as we suspend disbelief and sink slowly into the world of FF. As our chili-addicted narrator Vanna sweats for her next fix, trying desperately to get a hold of a jar of curry paste or sambel olek, the surreality of the situation only increases, providing the perfect vehicle for a darkly satirical look at our own world. Because no matter how absurd it sounds—we’ve all eaten spicy food and could you really call that a high?—every word about the experience of eating chilis rings true. But in Sinisalo’s world the absurd has become the everyday, a fact that shines a spotlight on the hideousness of the Finnish Ministry of Health dictatorship Sinisalo portrays and reflects some of society’s flaws on our side of the page.
With a similar device, Sinisalo takes a detailed look at gender roles. Our narrator is a Morlock (that is to say, intelligent, curious, critical, strong) who looks like an Eloi. She and her grandmother trick the health board inspectors into classifying her as an Eloi along with her younger sister Manna. We don’t hear a lot about the life of Morlocks, besides the fact that they grow up in homes (what parent would want to keep such a monster at home?) and are sterilized at a young age so they cannot produce any more undesirable female elements. Elois are trained to serve their husbands—every bit of Eloi media carries the message that marriage is the pinnacle of Eloi life. Afterward, it is their job to keep house, bear children, and please their husbands in every way.
Again, it sounds absurd, and yet, again, every word Sinisalo writes about Eloi training rings true of a certain set of expectations about females in our own world. The absurdity only works to make these expectations and stereotypes all the more horrifying and is further supported by the structure, which alternates between Vanna’s current situation, letters from Vanna to Manna rehashing the events of their childhood, excerpts from Eloi training manuals and school texts, and a few brief passages from Jare—Vanna’s friend, partner, and eventual husband—about the present situation. The training manuals and school texts—usually bits meant to explain the history and the philosophy of this world to the reader—were particularly effective because—I shudder at the thought—many of them are real. As Sinisalo explains in FF‘s afterward, this one was taken from a text about gender roles from the early 1900s, that one from a dog- training manual, and etc. The texts feel simultaneously over-the-top and true-to-life, and learning that many of the texts stem from real publications only serves to up the horror to full volume.
Welcome to Finnish New Weird
Did you notice I can’t get away from the word absurd? It is with good reason that Sinisalo has referred to her books as Finnish New Weird. While the exact definition of “New Weird” is disputed, FF is definitely weird. In the very first sentence we see Vanna put chili in her vagina to test the product she’s just been offered by a new dealer, and much of the text is written to create an extreme reaction. Anyone who likes their social analysis strange, who enjoys the examination and deconstructions of gender roles in their books is going to find a lot to chew on in FF.
Then there is the story, and there is a story here too. We are carried through FF‘s 317 pages on the back of a mystery: what has happened to Vanna’s sister Manna who is assumed dead but may still be alive? It turns out, a lot of Eloi’s disappear. As the property of their husbands, nobody asks any questions (if they even notice), if one falls through the cracks. As Vanna struggles with her sister’s disappearance and searches for her next chili fix (she and Jare are dealers, and the government appears to be cracking down), the pages fly by. Eventually, through a religious group clandestinely growing chilis, she is able to find both a steady source of chili, enlightenment, and answers. The religious folk, and the section near the end of the story that deals with them in detail, dragged, though I enjoyed their arguments with Vanna, a character who can’t stomach their woo-woo descriptions of chili’s powers and insists on having everything explained in scientific terms.
FF makes its point loud and clear, but in focusing so specifically fails to deeply develop the world. We leave FF knowing a lot about the life and training of an Eloi, but see only hints of the life of Morlocks and learn almost nothing about men’s enforced roles. This absence left the world feeling a bit flat, though you could argue that Sinisalo’s perspective choices mean we cannot learn more than our narrator knows. But Jare’s chapters could have given us a bigger window from which to observe, and that Sinisalo doesn’t use them as such is evidence that the world in the book wasn’t the point: it is the reflection of the world outside the page that matters. The world of FF is a device and a mirror, and a damn effective one.
Ten out of 14 fresh hot chili peppers.
Where I got it: Sent to me by the publisher for review