Book review: The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo

4 02 2017

Johanna Sinisalo is a Finnish speculative fiction writer who has also been involved in the worlds of advertising, television, movies (she wrote the screenplay for Iron Sky) and Moomin-related comics. She’s so far written seven novels and numerous pieces of shorter fiction: to date, four of her novels (including Birdbrain, which I’ve reviewed here) and a few short stories have been translated into English. She has won several literary awards in her native Finland, and received a Nebula shortlisting for the story ‘Baby Doll’ in 2009.


In The Core of the Sun (Auringon Ydin, 2013, translated by Lola Rogers), it is 2016, and Finland has been, for several decades, a eusistocracy, a society dedicated to maximising (and carefully controlling) the health and safety of its citizens. Dangerous pursuits are outlawed; attitudes deemed unhelpful in an aspirationally hazard-free environment are slowly being bred out of the country’s citizens; unhealthy substances such as sugar, chocolate, yeast, and meat are strictly controlled; alcohol, narcotics, caffeine, and chilies are banned.

Vanna is a chili addict. She’s also trying to work out what fate has befallen her sister Manna, who has been declared dead.

Sinisalo’s Finland is a land of rigid societal constraint, imposed not just by limitation of the scope of allowed activities, but directly and personally upon the range of life options available to its citizens. Females are categorised as either ‘eloi’ (obedient, docile, attractive, permitted to breed) or ‘morlocks’ (less obedient, plainer, not permitted to breed, but useful as labourers), and males are classed either as ‘mascos’ (alpha-male types, able to assert authority, permitted to breed) or ‘minus men’ (no-hopers). Both Vanna and Manna have been raised as eloi, but Vanna’s secret is that she’s a closet morlock, with no inclination to kowtow to society’s restrictive expectations of her.

The novel is told as a mixture of narrative, letters from Vanna to her missing sister, helpful encyclopedia entries, and ethnographic samples (eusistocratic folk songs, and so on). This gives the story a somewhat fragmented feeling, more so in the book’s first half than its second where the narrative drive is stronger. It’s also somewhat disconcerting, in the sense that the encyclopedia entries are sufficiently well-framed that it’s very difficult to discern exactly where historical fact ends and speculative invention begins: for example, the extract detailing Dmitri Belyaev’s mid-twentieth-century research on the domestication of the silver fox is factual, although the subsequent extrapolation of Belyaev’s methods to human society is, one trusts, a fragment of fiction …

The Core of the Sun is a very different book from the authentically naturalistic Birdbrain, the only other Sinisalo work I’ve read. While both books feel, in their own way, subversive, there’s a significantly keener satirical edge to The Core of the Sun. I suspect that there are a good many local references in the work that I’m not getting, but I don’t think one needs much more than a glancing awareness of Finland’s reputation for ‘humanism with a social face’ (or whatever the prescription might be) to recognise most of the barbs. And it does, in some places, show a very definite humour which does nothing to detract from the underlying seriousness of its intent. It hasn’t really usurped Leena Krohn’s Datura (or a delusion we all see) as my favourite among the set of modern Finnish speculative fiction novels dealing with the spiritual / psychotropic properties of the Solanoideae, but it is nonetheless a useful and highly imaginative addition to this set (which might, admittedly, only comprise the two members at this juncture). It’s a pleasantly-unsettling, convention-inverting work that might well be just right for these times.