What if wormholes to parallel universes routinely opened within the labyrinthine confines of IKEA? What if the store's lowest-ranking employees were dispatched to retrieve customers who unwittingly fell through those wormholes into other worlds? What if you had to go on this assignment with your ex, with whom you just broke up three days ago, and who wasn't even meant to be on your shift today at all?
Nino Cipri's Finna is an extremely enjoyable attempt to answer those questions, but it is also entirely grounded in the grinding capitalist reality of the present—or at least of the pre-pandemic present. Something as simple as taking the bus no longer has quite the same valence that it did in February 2020, when this book was released (and also the month when it's set). In some ways the world of Finna seems like a parallel universe of its own in its relationship with ours.
The story unfolds from the perspective of Ava, an associate at LitenVärld, the IKEA-equivalent big box furniture store. (I highly recommend running all the names in Finna through the Google Translate Swedish interface; there are some extremely good jokes salted among them.) A coworker calling out sick means she has to go in to work on the same day as her ex, Jules, even though the last thing she wants is to see them for the first time since the two of them broke up three days prior. Ava's day gets significantly worse when a young woman reports her grandmother missing at the customer service desk, and she and Jules discover that the grandmother has vanished through what their manager terms a "maskhål," a wormhole.
Above all, Cipri has a gift for skewering the soul-deadening corporate-speak of low-wage retail jobs, and the ways that those environments incentivize their employees, even the high-ranking ones, to anesthetize their humanity. The scene where all the employees watch an actual VHS tape about wormholes and LitenVärld's FINNA teams, fast-forwarding through the parts that are no longer relevant since the entire division was disbanded to save money during the recession, is darkly hilarious but also depressingly realistic: this is how IKEA would react to wormholes on the floor. One of the training video's actors explains that, "[t]he unique layout of LitenVärld encourages wormholes to form between universes" (p. 29), which honestly makes sense when you think about your last trip to IKEA and how you're already incentivized to take seemingly nonsensical shortcuts, like the one from kids' rooms to picture frames. Jules volunteers to take the store's FINNA device—and Ava, as the least senior associate besides Jules, is assigned to go with them.
Finna balances depressingly believable corporate satire with the queer post-relationship aftermath of Ava and Jules' interactions: thrown into this mission, they're reminded constantly of what brought them together, as well as what drove them apart: Jules reads the instructions; Ava just looks at the pictures. Jules is prepared but disorganized, while Ava is more cautious; Ava struggles with her depression and anxiety, while Jules is trying to deal with past trauma, and with being Black and trans in a world where they don't expect to see thirty. The pair’s raw emotions are almost painfully accurate. As parallel universes tend to do, the ones they visit here also lead them to consider whether there's a universe where they made it work—just as they wind up searching for an "acceptable replacement" for the customer's grandmother, who they quickly realize met an unpleasant fate amid the cushions of some carnivorous furniture.
Discussions of representation in speculative fiction don't always explicitly include class, but Finna is an excellent example of how thoughtfully incorporating class—rather than just insisting that the only axis of oppression is class, or defaulting to a middle-class viewpoint—can really strengthen a story. Unwilling or unable to construct the kind of retail persona needed to get by, for example, Jules is on their last warning before being fired, whereas Ava is better able to fit herself into the confines of the employee role. Finna's depressed queer twenty-somethings working dead-end retail jobs, one of whom is Black, are not the kind of protagonists often seen in science fiction. They are not middle-class, and their labor is not middle-class, and that's still more unusual than not in the field. But it is a far more accurate depiction of the world we live in than otherwise, and bringing science fiction into the confusing confines of IKEA and its fellow global corporations and multi-national chains (the manager offers Jules and Ava gift cards to "Pasta and Friends," which is spot-on awful) is as invigorating as bringing people like Jules and Ava into it.
To be honest, I could have read several more chapters of Jules and Ava venturing through parallel IKEA worlds; even for a Tor.com novella, Finna feels a little on the short side, though Cipri tells their story with a deft touch, and a sequel, Defekt, is due in 2021. This is not to say that Finna is slight; its politics have real heft, and its characters could be people I know. I'm not of the opinion that art needs to teach its audience anti-capitalism in order to justify its existence, and part of me also thinks that if you're not already anti-capitalist you're not paying attention. But Cipri teases out the story's very political themes rather than pounding the reader over the head with them, as the journey gradually brings Ava to realize just how much her job is taking from her:
Jules often called their job soul-killing, raged that retail was designed to wear down wage workers into hapless drones, too scared of poverty to rise up in revolution. It's just a job, she'd always said. No better or worse than any other job.
That's exactly the problem, Jules would groan.
Much as "Ugh, capitalism" was a running joke between them, their system was too big to do anything but joke about it. It's not like they had a plethora of options waiting for them out there.
But now there were options. Doorways into other worlds and other possibilities opened all the time, apparently. LitenVärld liked its worlds small, contained in their claustrophobic cubes, and under their control. No wonder they had gotten rid of the FINNA division. Ava wondered what they had found out there; what they'd brought back, what ideas they'd been infected with. Maybe some teams had chosen not to come back at all. (p. 85)
Cipri is probably correct that "Ugh, capitalism" has become as much a truism as anything else; unless capitalism is still working for you, you're already one of the screwed. But the virtue of Finna, and art in general, is that it counteracts the energy-suck of low-wage jobs, and it can show its audiences possible alternatives. In this context I'm not particularly fussed that the capitalist alternative in the last world Ava and Jules visit is … a barter system. ("Groundbreaking," as Miranda Priestly would say.) The point is not that it's Cipri's responsibility to imagine a fully fleshed out alternative to late-stage finance capitalism as we live it now; it's to remind us that other worlds are possible, literally in the case of Finna, figuratively in the case of our reality. And we don't even need a FINNA device or a trip to IKEA to find them.