Rating: 8.7 (out of 10)
The afterlife hardly seems like a suitable subject for science fiction, but authors as far back as Edgar Allan Poe – whose pseudoscientific proto-mockumentary “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” hoodwinked newspaper readers in 1845 – have sought to portray the pre-scientific notion of consciousness after death in post-scientific terms. Some of the more famous examples since then come from Philip José Farmer (Riverworld series) and Philip K. Dick (Ubik), and of course the 1990 star-studded b-movie “Flatliners”. More recently, the idea of a digital afterlife – spurred by technological advances in brain mapping, digital storage, and the ever-increasing verisimilitude of virtual reality and computer simulations – has taken hold in popular science fiction. Considering this development, it is a little curious that Cambridge/Edinburgh-educated mathematician Hannu Rajaniemi, author of the diamond hard sci-fi Jean le Flambeur trilogy, would dip his toes into so abstract a pond as the good old-fashioned, pre-digital afterlife in his new novel Summerland. But then again, abstraction is the essence of mathematics, and the Jean le Flambeur books largely dealt with the same philosophical investigations into mind-body dualism that fuel even the most occultish conceptions of life after death.
Set in an alternate, Nazi-free 1938 in Great Britain, Rachel White is an agent for the Winter Court, the British intelligence (SIS) organization for all things afterlife-related. The dead (at least those lucky enough to obtain a Ticket) reside in the aetheric metropolis of Summerland, and the SIS branch there is known as the Summer Court. Rachel learns that one of their agents in the Summer Court – a ghost named Peter Bloom whom she briefly served with before he died – is a Soviet mole, but she’s left hanging by her superiors and must go rogue to expose him. The Spanish Civil War rages in the background, and most of the novel’s intrigue revolves around Britain’s stake in the outcome. Britain has grudgingly thrown its support behind Franco’s fascists, if only to counter the Soviet Union’s support of Spain’s communist factions. Bloom himself is basically untouchable – he is shielded from suspicion by everyone up to and including the prime minister – and can do a lot of damage as a Soviet spy; not only in affecting the outcome of the Spanish war, but also in steering the fate of the world at large. The Soviets have created a god-like machine called the Presence to guide their empire, one that the chosen few can be joined with after death – an allure that Bloom, and presumably many others, cannot resist.
Summerland is the kind of story that begins in media res and unpacks its layers gradually. Rajaniemi is sly about explicating his extraordinarily complex world: there are certainly little pockets of exposition and info-dumping here and there, but most of the architecture is revealed through the little edges that poke out as the details of plot and character emerge. Summerland is not a long novel and the fact that Rajaniemi manages to keep his cat-and-mouse plot moving at a crackling pace while inventing an entirely new physics to explain how the world works is nothing short of sensational.
Neither does the plot’s momentum slight the characters’ inner lives in the least: Rachel’s circumstances – being the only woman operative in the SIS – make it so she can expose herself to recruitment by Bloom without even having to create a fiction to explain her motives. Overworked and undervalued, her results are questioned and often disregarded despite her sterling track record. Early in the novel we even witness her superior passively suggest that violence would be an appropriate punishment for her perceived insolence. When she literally must turn traitor to make her unsanctioned pursuit of Bloom, the effect is all the more colorable by such contingencies. Bloom is also a fascinating character, caught somewhere in between the radicalism of his youth and a new kind of wariness that comes when one is safe in the knowledge that death is not the end. At one point he acutely reveals the basic injustice of his own plight: now that the soul has been commoditized he has nothing to look forward to but an eternity in civil service. At least the Soviets are offering communion with God.
The tricky balancing act that Rajaniemi mostly pulls off with Summerland leaves little to complain about: even on the few occasions where its convolutions start to dogpile, taking a step back to untangle the threads is part of the pleasure of reading it. If I were to express any disappointment in my experience, it would only be that the novel sprouts so many miraculous possibilities and teases so many underutilized potentialities that no amount of satisfactory narrative closure could ever seem like enough. I would gladly welcome, even long for, a return trip to Summerland.