Fair Winds for Finnish Weird
(Translation Liisa Rantalaiho, published previously in Cosmos pen 3/2011)
Today the Finnish Weird fares better than ever. The atmosphere of mainstream publishing houses has become favourable to domestic speculative fiction. Where we used to find a strict division of genres, mixing of genres and bold experiments have become common. The present situation would not have been possible without the long-term efforts and contributions of both the organized fandom and individual actives.
The 1950’ies was a significant turning point in the development of Finnish science fiction. Literary fantasy had existed before that, of course, but only to a minor degree. The 1950’ies was a time of eager interest in space, and the market was flowing with space novels, both domestic and foreign translations. At the same time, a dividing line between science fiction and so-called serious literature emerged. The golden age classics of science fiction, such as Asimov, Clarke and Le Guin were translated in hard cover during the 1970-1980’ies, but by 1990’ies the substance of translations had moved towards YA and bulk fantasy. The crucial thing about the change was that while science fiction had earlier been treated as serious adult literature, literary critique now saw it as trivial juvenile consumer fiction. This probably had a negative effect on the opinions of Finnish literary circles; on the other hand, it did raise a generation thoroughly familiar with their stock of fantasy literature.
By 2000’ies the emphasis in translated literature turned to contemporary science fiction. The literary critics who had grown up among SF/F have proved first rate experts in promoting the appearance of quality genre literature. The Finncons, organized since 1986, bring together fen and professionals of SF/F, and introduce both foreign and domestic authors to the public. Active fen have influenced Finnish publication policy by promoting the books by Finncon Guests-of-Honour and helping with the translation. At the moment, publishing houses print several kinds of translated literature for different reader segments. Some of the active fen have started their own publishing firms, such as Kirjava (translated George R.R. Martin), Vaskikirjat (translated Ellen Kushner) and turbator (mostly domestic publications). These have made up for the gaps in publishing, and even published neglected classics of the field. The positive atmosphere has made possible the proliferation of speculative fiction writers in the country and their breakthrough to general public awareness.
The writers of Finnish Weird have in Finland always had the advantage of a community spirit lacking from the mass of mainstream writers. I have never come across a matching degree of commitment in any other writer community. On the Finnish Weird scene the togetherness is understandably brought on by definite genre lines, the feeling of interest in a subject that is not evident for others. The history of marginalisation unites and empowers also the fen, whether it’s just a prejudice about a lack of understanding for genre writing, or a genuinely felt experience that genre texts were rarely accepted for publication in earlier times.
On the Weird scene, it is customary to help also new unknown writers and urge them to achievement. Fandom keeps nurturing its new writers, and on the other hand, incorporating writers who may not themselves have realized that what they are writing is speculative fiction. The country-wide FSFFWA (Finnish Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association) and the local SF associations in various cities have all made an important contribution in promoting Finnish Weird, for literature has always played a central part in Finnish fandom. Fandom offers peer support, training and publication channels.
The incentive of writing contests
The short story contest of the Portti journal has been organized since 1986. It has become the most significant countrywide SF/F writing contest, and for many it has functioned as a school of creative writing. While it’s open also for professionals, the level of participants and awardees has risen by the years. Several widely recognized authors have made their debut in the Portti contest, including Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen and Maarit Verronen.
In the year 2000 FSFFWA and the Turku Science Fiction Club established the Nova short story contest for beginning writers. The Nova speciality is that the 25 semi-finalists will each receive written feedback on their texts. With the top ten, a feedback seminar has also been tried with success. The Nova contest is strictly limited to short stories, thus complementing well the Portti contest, which even accepts novelettes.
The contests give concrete goals for the writers and help timing the writing process. Several fanzines offer publication channels, like Portti, Tähtivaeltaja (semi-prozines), Spin, Kosmoskynä, Alienisti, and the webzines Usva and Kalaksikukko. All short stories published in Finland within a calendar year, whether in anthologies or periodicals, are eligible for the fandom vote of the Atorox Award for the year’s best SF/F short story.
Besides these two contests, there have always been occasional writing contests, often with a special theme. For instance the Union of Rural Education and Culture organized an important writing contest in the 1980’ies, and the URSA Astronomical Association compiled several anthologies from the best short stories in its journals. The FSFFWA has been quite active organizing contests in the 2000’ies. The writing contests of the Tähtivaeltaja magazine have specially emphasized science fiction. The webzine Usva has, among other types, asked for short-short stories.
The writing contests have served an important function as schools of creative writing. There is, however, a slight inconsistency in that the publishing world does not give much scope for anthologies. The short story schooling of the fandom encourages writing, but crossing the threshold of general commercial publishing mostly requires a novel size text.
A new breakthrough
In the 2007 Eurocon in Copenhagen I met publishers from all over Europe. The message was quite clear: science fiction and fantasy are not acceptable on par with mainstream literature. An Irish colleague told me that to be profiled as an SF writer in Ireland creates a stigma very had to get rid of. In France, SF/F is limited to a few specialized publishers.
These characterizations were still valid in Finland in the 1990’ies, but in 15 years everything seems to have changed. Suddenly a lot of domestic fantasy literature has appeared, and translations have increased. Established Finnish YA writers have started publishing fantasy more often, but at the same time totally new authors have appeared, writers who had always included fantasy as a natural part of their repertoire. In the 1990’ies, for instance Anu Holopainen, Viivi Hyvönen, Leena Laulajainen and Ritva Toivola were writing fantasy novels. Maarit Verronen whose work has always had a touch of weird, when not straight SF, had become a recognized author without genre labels. Risto Isomäki, known also as a popular science writer, never hesitated to call his novels science fiction. The work of Leena Krohn has included weird and speculative elements since the beginning of her career 1980’ies, although mainstream critique has not counted it as genre fiction.
The 2000’ies saw novel debuts by several new writers, whose work wholly or partly falls within the genre, such as Ilkka Auer, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, Juha-Pekka Koskinen, Anne Leinonen, J. Pekka Mäkelä, Tero Niemi & Anne Salminen, Sari Peltoniemi, Tiina Raevaara and Johanna Sinisalo. Among them we can find several writers with roots in SF/F, persons who have grown up within the scene, and at the very least participated in genre writing contests.
One should remember that since the war years a strong realistic tradition has dominated in Finnish literature. Because of the small language area, we almost totally lack the pulp tradition, except for a couple of romance magazines. There have never been any commercial science fiction magazines. Publishers specializing in SF/F have been rare, and not commercially successful. The literary scene is therefore rather homogenous, and a writer of weird has to compete alongside with the general mainstream supply. Publishers have to consider the profile of their firm and the commercial and artistic dimensions of the weird.
I consider one reason for the Weird breakthrough to be a generation change. Publishers have been recruiting the generation that is familiar with their Tolkien and Star Trek since childhood. On the other hand, movie industry and global trends are all feeding us the message that speculative fiction is a paramount instrument for discussing social reality and its phenomena. In many ways reality has come to resemble the world speculated in genre literature for long since. More and more writers use the means of speculative writing in their text, and for instance dystopian detective stories located in the near future are growing in popularity.
While the Finncons showcase high-quality foreign SF/F literature to the Finns, they also bring the domestic speculative fiction closer to growing masses of readers. This has not escaped the notice of both sponsors and publishers.
Several Finnish authors are creatively zigzagging from one genre to another and writing texts of a very versatile character. Publishers have a basically positive attitude, and almost every publishing house at present includes one or more weird-tuned authors in their stable. It certainly had an effect that Johanna Sinisalo won the highly respected Finlandia Award in 2000 with her novel Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (Not before Sundown). Even earlier, Leena Krohn had received the Finlandia Award in 1992 with her book Matemaattisia olioita (Mathematical Entities). No longer could anyone claim that speculative fiction couldn’t possibly be high literature. Instead, weird has become one possible tool of writing alongside others. Now more and more literature is published in Finland where for instance a touch of weird is mixed with a detective story or with workaday realism, and nobody needs bother about it, let alone rack one’s brain trying to categorize the genre.
Finnish Weird is also able to assume protective colouring in the publishers’ marketing slogans. The ecologically conscious SF novels by Risto Isomäki are marketed as techno-thrillers, and as such have reached the awareness of the general public.
The Finnish SF/F are also doing well in the respect that we can afford to have cultural movements and schools of style. By 2006 the group of Real Fantastics wished to dissociate themselves from all genre limits that constrict their writing, and by 2010 a counterforce for the high literature Weird appeared, when the New Pulp movement published a manifesto for traditional adventure stories and entertaining SF/F narrative. The movements are presented in separate articles in this magazine.
Looking at the future
The future of Finnish Weird seems promising. The beginning of the new decade looks splendid for the Weird: the esteemed publishing house Teos announced a writing contest for SF/F novels *. Nothing similar has taken place since the 1950’ies. Tiina Raevaara’s collection of weird short stories, En tunne sinua vierelläni (I do not feel you close to myself) received the prestigious Runeberg Award. When one checks the publishing lists of the current spring and autumn, one finds several names familiar from the fandom scene, regardless of whether the book seems to be weird or mainstream. Even in the international arena Finnish Weird seems to have found a foothold: Leena Krohn, Johanna Sinisalo and Hannu Rajaniemi as the avant garde, others perhaps to follow soon.**
The main thing is, however, that in Finland there is a growing group of writers, whose weird worlds and ideas will soon delight us readers. Finnishness and our way of thinking do interest people elsewhere, too.
* The winner of the contest was Emmi Itäranta´s Teemestarin kirja ( The Memory of Water)
** Others include authors such as Marko Hautala, Leena Likitalo, Salla Simukka, Maria Turtschaninoff… And the list is growing.