Hannu Rajaniemi’s 2010 debut novel The Quantum Thief established him as a budding master of works blending the outlandish and the brainy. In that book, the author and mathematical physicist transplanted elements of the heist genre into a high-tech future rife with very current considerations about prisons government surveillance, not to mention brain-meltingly cool technology. While a very different kind of story, Summerland, his new supernatural spy novel, pulls off a similar trick in reverse: Rajaniemi goes back in time, imagining a pre-World War II Europe primed to explode, and newly complicated by the discovery of a striking, and strikingly weird, version of the afterlife.
It’s 1938, and the Spanish Civil War is well underway. A proto-Cold War has developed in Europe as Britain backs the fascist revolutionaries against a democratic government supported by the Soviet Union. There are key differences between this world and history as we know it, brought about by the discovery, decades earlier, that the afterlife is a real, literal place, and communication with the other side is possible. While humanity hasn’t entirely mapped out the landscape of the next life, the English have already claimed a city of the dead that they call Summerland, and provided a means of entry for those deemed worthy: memorizing the contours of a four-dimensional ticket. For the residents of Summerland, (after)life goes on, the city humming along with its own economy and expectations of work for the incorporeal spirits of the departed, and the British class system largely remaining in place.
Interaction between the two realms is similarly mundane: ectophones connect Summerland with the winter world of the living, and the wealthy are able to rent out living bodies to possess, allowing for a more physical visit. Resultantly, global politics and espionage have become yet more complicated, not just by the competing interests of global powers, but also by the fact that the dead have agendas, too (and it’s much harder to threaten someone who is already dead to keep mum).
In the opening chapters, British Intelligence operative Rachel White learns the identity of a British mole working for the Soviets. Her subsequent quest to expose him is complicated not only by disbelief on the part of her superiors, but by the fact that the well-connected Bloom is already dead. Rachel is reassigned to desk work, but it doesn’t stop her from playing the dangerous role of double agent as a means of drawing him out. As with any good spy novel, the web in which she finds herself entangled only grows more complex and dangerous, as the perspective splits between the damaged but relentless Rachel and her surprisingly sympathetic counterpart Bloom, off in the spirit realm.
Rajaniemi crafts an afterlife simultaneously bizarre and banal. Spirits move on waves of thought, and structures made from abandoned soul stones shape themselves to the power of ideas. Very old spirits, no longer recognizably human, haunt the more recent dead. Still, society trudged on, even after death. Architects (aethertects, in this case) design office buildings with space for secretaries’ desks and meeting rooms. Post-Victorian prudery about appearance holds sway, even among people for whom clothes are just mental constructs. The Summer and Winter courts interact as though distant field offices, rather than planes of existence separated by the veil between life and death. None of this is to suggest a failure of imagination on Rajaniemi’s part: a tremendous amount of worldbuilding went into this conception of the afterlife, and into how the living adapt to a world in which death as we know it is a thing of the past. Humans, he reminds us, will always fit new circumstances into something very close to the preexisting status quo.
It feels particularly apropos that the book is largely concerned with Brits in the ’30s, when recovery from the Great War led to a rejuvenation of traditional Victorian values before World War II broke down much of the old class system for good, and signaled the beginning of the end for the empire. It’s a culture in time refused to give on its ideals and mores, however questionable—and certainly that would hold true even in the afterlife. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union has claimed its own piece of post-mortal real estate, where the worthy dead are absorbed into a unified gestalt consciousness with Vladimir Lenin at its core. Meanwhile, in the land of the living, war has grown to encompass truly horrific technology that feed on souls, leading, in both worlds, to a great deal of apprehension about the prospect of another global conflict. Given the chance, it seems, we’ll ride our social and economic structures all the way to hell. You can probably forget about retiring, even in death.
In a manner that’s sometimes frustrating, but ultimately wise, Rajaniemi refuses to hand-hold readers, who are dropped into this alternate history and expected to catch up and keep up with characters little interested in exposition. The inclusion of real historical figures and events grounds the narrative somewhat, but the experience of traveling across this wildly imaginative noir/steampunk mash-up of Jules Verne and John Le Carré takes some getting used to. The ingredients might be familiar, but Rajaniemi blends them in impressively weird ways, crafting a spy caper that will expand your mind even as it pummels it into submission.