Six Things I Brought Home from Finland

1. A Useful Word. We're all familiar with them - those brick-like units of seemingly endless fantasy series. But we don't have a word to distinguish them from fantasies that manage to complete themselves in a reasonable number of volumes. The Finns do: tusinafantasia, which literally means "dozen-fantasy." At the 2003 Finncon, one of the more popular events was a competition in which fans hurled a tusinafantasia as far from themselves as possible. Wild horses could not tear the name of the book's author from my lips.

2. Johanna Sinisalo's Not Before Sundown. This book won the Finlandia Prize, Finland's most prestigious literary award, and as a result has made the difficult leap from Finnish to English translation (Peter Owen Publisher, London and Chester Springs, PA, £10.95). The basic premise, that trolls are a natural animal though rare and only recently recognized by science (as the gorilla once was), is a shot right to the heart of Scandinavian sensibilities. But Sinisalo's invented and "found" source materials - excerpts from folklore, scientific texts, old children's novels, and so on - is so ear-perfect that, while I was reading, it was hard to keep in mind that these cat-derived products of convergent evolution (Felipithicus trollius, a distant relative of the almost extinct yellow cat-ape of Indonesia) were a wholly imaginary creation.

The plot is simple. A spectacularly beautiful gay man named Angel, used to treating other people shabbily and being treated by them in a similar manner, rescues a sickly troll cub from sadistic drunks. He keeps the creature in his apartment and quickly becomes obsessed by it. Healthy again, it begins producing pheromones which, because they rub off on him, make Angel the sexual obsession of all he deals with.

Okay, so we've got a honking big metaphor here. The wild animal from the forests that makes its nest in the protagonist's closet? I think we can all figure that one out. But - and this may be the secret of novels with honking big metaphors that nevertheless work - the troll, Pesso, has a life and reality all his own, and resists being entirely reduced to a literary device. Sinisalo has clearly done the hard, exhilarating work of imaging how this would really be, given her premise, and it brings the book to life.

We also get compulsion, growth, betrayal, self-revelation, sex, deceit, criminal irresponsibility, and all that other good stuff that we go to novels to find. Plus an original SF idea carefully worked out. Several people told me that, while excellent, Not Before Sundown wasn't really science fiction. Naw. It's SF all right. You can tell because though it's first-rate read as a mainstream novel, when read as science fiction it's a delight.

The book is slender, my guess is novella-length. The translation is good, with a few minor infelicities. Whoever did the front and back cover photos (moody monochrome photos with a troll doll Photoshopped into each) should be taken out and shot.

3. A Copy of Rautalohikäärmeen Tytär. Sounds great, doesn't it? It's the Finnish translation of my novel, The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I heard an excerpt from it read aloud at a bookstore event, and all the subtle infelicities of prose that leap out at me in English were gone and I was able to happily imagine that, like Poe in French, my work had been perfected in the translation. The publisher, Like, did a beautiful job with the packaging too.

4. A Communist Ashtray. Glass, with the Soviet hammer-and-sickle logo. I bought it in the Lenin museum in Tampere. Then Marianne and I went to the Moominvalley museum two blocks away to look at Tove Jannson's paintings and drawings and the tableaux that she, her wife, and a local dentist built, of scenes from the Moomintroll books. You can get real cultural whiplash that way.

5. Tokyo Doesn't Love Us Anymore by Ray Loriga. This is an English translation of a Spanish novel, which I bought in Helsinki on the recommendation of a Finnish fan. How cosmopolitan can you get?

Lots more, as it turns out. The nameless protagonist of Loriga's novel sells memory-eroding drugs in Arizona, Berlin, Ho Chi Minh City, Kyoto, anywhere the Company sends him. He's a slick guy, capable of getting along with anybody anywhere, and from the very first words ("It wasn't snowing" followed by, "It really was snowing, but it was pretend snow") it's obvious that he's psychically drowning in the global culture. Obvious, too, that he's been sampling his own wares. And one can't help suspecting that the absent woman he's addressing this story to, much in the manner of William Gibson's "New Rose Hotel," isn't alive, as he obviously believes, but dead, as he tells others she is.

We are all familiar with that jet-lagged anomie that sets in with the second scotch on the balcony of your room at the Hyatt House with the television chattering away behind you and down below an unused swimming pool with the underwater lights on. Here, Lariga provides the atrocity that would explain the horror you feel then, the gnawing sense of wrongness that sets in and, finding no source for itself, compels its possessor to keep looking for it. It's an awful thing, selling oblivion to people who have committed acts - serial impulse murders not excluded - they don't want to remember. But it's better than the alternative.

Tokyo Doesn't Love Us Anymore is available from Canongate Books, Edinburgh, £9.99. The cover is neatly designed to sell the kind of novel contained within, and the translation is really first-rate, though the translator has apparently never heard of a certain pancake-and-waffle chain and renders its name as the International Pancake Store.

6. A Bottle of Tar-Flavored Schnapps. This cordial is not as scary as it sounds. The tar in question is pine tar, which has a smoky flavor and in Finland is sometimes poured over ice cream as a flavoring. Taken in small quantities, it's surprisingly pleasant-tasting. My wife does not agree. When I bought the bottle, she rolled her eyes and said, "Some people will drink anything!"

Michael Swanwick would like to thank everyone involved with Finncon for their warmth and hospitality. And the sauna. Let's not forget the sauna.

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