It’s 1938 and Rachel White is a veteran agent in the British Secret Intelligence Service, but her career is dealt a heavy blow when a Soviet defector commits suicide while she’s supposed to be protecting him. Before he dies, the defector gives her a shocking revelation: a British spy named Peter Bloom is actually working for the Russians. Her superiors don’t believe the allegation, but Rachel does, and she sets out to track down the mole before her career implodes completely.
So far this sounds like a cynical spy story in the mold of John Le Carré, but that brings us to the other viewpoint character, Peter Bloom. Like Rachel, he works in SIS, but there’s a big difference that veers the story away from its espionage roots: he’s dead, and therefore works in the Summer City, the British Empire’s colony in the spirit world. It seems that a few decades earlier in this alternate history, scientists figured out how to contact ghosts and, more importantly, how to cause spirits to linger there instead of “fading” away to ... well, no one knows, but either nothingness or something totally beyond our world. Things work a little differently in the spirit world of Summerland. Ghosts can cross physical distances at great speeds, they can see the emotions in living brains, and they can also store memories outside their own minds. But they are limited too: they can barely perceive the physical world, only interact with it via specific “aetheric devices,” and if they run out of a spiritual energy called “vim” through either poverty or accident, they will fade away and be lost forever.
Rajaniemi’s first order of business is to work out some of the implications of the presence of the afterlife and the odd rules he has created for it. Some things are fairly prosaic: Rachel talks from time to time to her dead mother via a sort of aetheric telephone. Others are a little more out-there but still straightforward: Rachel’s husband is a psychological wreck as a result of wielding spirit energy during World War I. And some are pretty wild, like the Soviet Union solving the problem of central planning by continuously merging the souls of newly dead Russians into what was originally the ghost of Lenin, forming a transhuman hive mind to run the economy. While the presence of ghosts and the afterlife might suggest this is a fantasy novel, it very much has a science fiction mindset when it comes to defining its speculative pieces and working through their implications.
Rajaniemi’s first novel, Quantum Thief, made a big splash when it came out because it felt intensely new: words and concepts and situations never before seen in science fiction seemed to flow one after another. Even the many existing genre tropes Quantum Thief used felt fresh when situated in this milieu. The price was that the book made intense demands of its surely disoriented reader, starting off in media res and allowing context to arrive only slowly. At its weirdest, Summerland gives off echoes of that same feeling, but mostly this is Rajaniemi dialed back to safer, more approachable levels. This probably gives the book a broader audience, but one can’t help feeling a bit disappointed that Rajaniemi is going easy on us.
Even if its raw materials aren’t as unfamiliar, Summerland still packs things in with an impressive density. The story incorporates aspects of many genres ranging from science fiction to fantasy, alternate history to espionage. Furthermore, it mixes together a lot of story beats that are certainly not unique to this novel but any one of which could form the basis of a novel by itself: Rachel is a female employee struggling to stay afloat in the face of the constant sexism of a predominately male profession, for example. Her husband has never recovered from the trauma of his wartime experiences and their marriage is dysfunctional as a result. Peter is increasingly alienated from his culture and struggling to find meaning in his life. He also has a melodramatic family situation: his father may not be his biological father, but his mother hid this and took the secret to her grave. And after spending most of its time combining the mundane family drama of its viewpoint characters with a spy novel plot seasoned with science fiction exposition, the story takes a sudden turn toward epic fantasy, with the afterlife and everyone in it endangered by an ancient demonic force.
Jamming all this into one standard-length novel means a lot of readers will find something to appreciate. Whatever stereotypes one might be tempted to apply to a science fiction author with a PhD in physics, Rajaniemi has a light touch with his prose and takes the time to make his central characters have the sort of flaws and conflicts that make them feel like real people. But ultimately there just isn’t space to develop so many ideas and themes, not to the point one might expect from a novel. And overlaying so many different plot threads can erode the reader’s interest: with an existential threat to humanity looming, it’s easy to feel impatient as the central characters struggle with marriage and personal meaning. However large these difficulties are on a human scale, they shrink to insignificance when the focus moves to an entire civilization.
Since the plot and characters are just echoes of countless other stories and the setting’s spirit world is vibrant and unique, it follows that the one subject Summerland should be uniquely able to address is death. Here the story calls to mind the celebrated short story author Ted Chiang, for Summerland can be seen as an exercise in speculative cosmology similar to Chiang’s “Tower of Babel” or “Hell is the Absence of God.” In those stories, Chiang takes religious concepts and explores the implications of them being literally true. Rajaniemi takes a similar, but not identical, path. The term “Summerland” comes from Theosophic and Wiccan ideas about a place where souls linger before reincarnation, but Rajaniemi doesn’t take much more than the name. Rather than drawing from any one tradition, he invents rules that owe more to cyberpunk than to spiritualism. Then he lets different factions in the story do different things with the technology. Britain creates something reminiscent of the Christian or Islamic afterlife, a place where you go after death if you are good … in this case, a good citizen of the state. The Soviet Union’s merging of souls echoes ideas from other traditions that envision the abolition of self and union with the divine. The advantage here over what Chiang was doing is that in both cases, these are explicitly technologies created by human governments. This means we can evaluate them without the baggage of our prior feelings for or against a particular religious idea. For example, in this context the question of what one does all day once in the afterlife can be examined even by a Christian without any whiff of sacrilege: it’s just a speculative question explored by the setting.
But there’s a price to be paid for this distancing. It may be these questions are most profitably explored in terms of the best case (the way actual religions invariably present them), for by framing life after death as the creation of very flawed human governments, it’s easy to write them off. The idea of the British colonizing the afterlife is, after all, a sort of joke about the all-devouring nature of imperialism at the height of the Empire. Just the use of terms like “colonize” sets most modern readers against such a project, and since the mundane side of Summerland’s story dwells on the sexism and corruption of British elites, it is easy to reject. The Soviets and their transhuman superintelligence aren’t on screen nearly as much, but they don’t come off much better. It also doesn’t help that Rajaniemi can’t resist following his ideas to some very strange conclusions. We never really get much of a feel for what the afterlife is like for ordinary people, but one encounter between Peter and a ghost working in an archive serves to drive home the fact that the longer a ghost “lives” in Summerland the less human it becomes:
When he joined the Court, she had been pretty, with auburn hair, a prim figure and legs with the perfect geometry of sharpened pencils. She still wore white blouses and short skirts, but her hair was now colourless and her face had become a translucent oval, illuminated from within by the faint prismatic glow of her luz stone.
Later, while trying to manipulate her feelings, he kisses her “mouthless” face and finds her skin “felt like a soap bubble, slippery and yielding against his lips.” The encounter gets still weirder from there. The point seems to be that human souls are in a very different plane of existence but we’ve simply conjured a thinly constructed replica of living human experience there. It’s not only thin but fragile: there is some talk of living there for eternity, but the ever-present danger of fading makes it feel as if this is less an afterlife than a second life, one that still ends in something a lot like death.
In the absence of the numinous, each of the two central characters spends most of the novel exploring possible solutions to the moral quagmire of nationalism and espionage. Rachel keeps trying to do her job despite the suffocating sexism, corruption, and incompetence of the British bureaucracy. She increasingly disobeys orders and chooses her own path, but she never quite rejects Britain or its Summer City. Peter, having recoiled in disgust from the idea of an afterlife that robs our own present lives of meaning, thinks he sees an answer in the Soviet group mind and strives to join it. If this was a typical young adult dystopia, these two characters would eventually learn the truth of the world, smash these unworthy governments, and create some new, better order (falling in love along the way, no doubt). But Summerland is too adult, or at least too cynical, to offer that kind of salvation. Lives can be saved, war can be averted, but the only answer anyone has for the moral corruption of the British and Soviet afterlives—the answer put forth in slightly different ways by nearly every important character—is simply not to participate and hope that when their soul fades from the known afterlife it goes somewhere better.
The traditional hope of science fiction that technology can help elevate the human condition is thus rejected, though of course the novel is in good company on that score. Also rejected, seemingly, is the possibility of improving governments from within, even the democratic government of Britain. There is some justification of this: the Summer City seems to be a force for societal stasis, since Queen Victoria rules the living from the afterlife, dead businessmen still run their businesses, and so on. But this isn’t really given much attention. Do the dead vote, for example? How is “vim,” the spirit energy needed by ghosts to avoid fading, allocated? How scarce is it?
The novel doesn’t contain answers to these questions, but perhaps the biggest absence is the fear of death. Even if the afterlife isn’t perfect, one would think it’s still a lot better than the alternative. But most of the major characters end up quite accepting of true death. We are at least shown family members grieving lost parents, both with and without the comfort of knowing they live on in Summerland, but this features only briefly and only in flashback. Where is the dying person desperate to get a Ticket to the afterlife? Where are the riots over the government’s allocation of Tickets? Where are the immigrants streaming into Britain in hopes of joining seemingly the only society that can promise an individual afterlife? There are a thousand forms the desire for life can take, and for them to be almost entirely absent from the novel makes this otherwise dense novel feel emotionally thin.
Any misgivings I might have about the novel, however, stem from the choices of its author rather than any failure of craft. Rajaniemi’s continued creativity is likely to satisfy fans of his earlier work, and with its ultimate decision to focus on alienation the story completes its tour through so many genres to return to where it started, the cynical spy story.
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