The latest novel by Johanna Sinisalo to be translated into English hits all of the right notes for me. It is science fiction, it is feminist, and it is about chili peppers. It also has what has become one of my favorite opening lines of a novel:
I lift my skirt, pull aside the waistband of my underwear, and push my index finger in to test the sample.
That tells you for sure that you are entering uncompromising, Joanna Russ-like territory.
Vanna and Manna are two orphan girls who, when their parents died, were sent to live in Finland with an aged relative. Those are not their real names. The Finland of the novel has strict rules on what sort of names women are allowed, and the names their parents had given them were not on the list.
That is by no means the only difference between the Finland of the book and the Finland we know. Sinisalo’s fictional Eusistocratic Republic of Finland labors until the iron heel of the Health Authority which regulates many facets of life. In particular it enforces rigid gendered behavior. As in Lizard Radio, The Core of the Sun postulates a world in which children are subjected to gender testing early in life. However, Sinisalo’s world does not enforce gender transition. Instead it divides both males and females into those who are able to conform to gender stereotypes and those who are not. Those who fail the test are forbidden to reproduce, so eventually they will die out and a perfect society will result. In the meantime they provide a useful labor force.
The term ‘Eusistocracy’ is derived from the Latin words ‘eu’ (meaning good) and ‘sistere’ (meaning to remain). It refers to a society whose members know what is Good for them, and stick to it. The Health Authority is the ultimate arbiter of what is Good for you. Things that are Not Good for you include anything remotely psychotropic, including alcohol, tobacco, and of course capsaicin.
Living a Good life also involves maintaining proper gendered behavior. Women are divided into femiwomen and neuterwomen. Colloquially they are known as eloi and morlocks, not just because femiwomen are much prettier, but also because a Good woman has no opinions of her own.
Men are divided into mascos and minus men. Intelligence is not required of mascos; they are assumed intelligent by definition.
Everything about life for young Finns is geared towards making them Good citizens. Even fairy tales have been carefully re-written.
Then the wolf leaped out of the bed and threw off his wolf’s skin, and Little Redianna saw that he wasn’t a wolf at all but a handsome prince.
“Because you didn’t obey me and agree to be my wife, and decided to bring medicine to your grandmother instead, I’m not going to marry you,” said the handsome prince, and he left Little Redianna at her grandmother’s house, and she never, ever got married.
Manna grows up to be a perfect eloi. She totally buys into the princess thing. Vanna, on the other hand, is a problem. She’s as pretty as her sister, but she’s far too smart and self-assured to pass as an eloi, and not much interested in the whole femininity thing. Grandma Aulikki teaches her to fake it so that she won’t be condemned to life as a morlock. This is dangerous.
Any person who deliberately misleads state authorities with regard to officially defined sexes by altering an inborn neuterwoman’s appearance to resemble that of a femiwoman, whether through surgery or other cosmetic means, shall be charged with aggravated gender fraud and making a mockery of the state.
Note the assumption that an intelligent and outspoken woman will be naturally ugly.
Thankfully Vanna is smart enough to get away with it. She’s also lucky enough to fall into a relationship with a young man called Jare who wants nothing more than to earn enough money to buy passage out of this awful, repressive country. They set up an illicit business as drug dealers, selling chilis. Meanwhile Manna throws herself at the first man to take an interest in her, because being unmarried is unthinkable. Indeed, wanting to be married is one of the few things that eloi are allowed to think.
Both young women are on a collision course with reality. Manna will find out soon enough that married life isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Vanna and Jare cannot avoid the police forever. There will be consequences for both. There will be pain. But if there is one thing that the chili teaches you, it is to survive pain.
The story is mainly told from Vanna’s point of view, though it interweaves the present day narrative of the adult Vanna with flashbacks of the girls’ childhood together. Some chapters are narrated by Jare, and the story is also fleshed out with material from official state documents explaining the principles of Eusistocratic society and its origins in early 20th Century science.
The ideas about breeding “domesticated” women are based on the work of the Russian geneticist, Dmitri K. Belyaev. There’s also a fair amount of science about chili peppers in the book. The Transcendental Capsaicinophilic Society is a real, and charmingly Discordian, organisation. You can write science fiction about the strangest things.
Of course, as a trans woman I am depressingly familiar with the daft things that people who think themselves scientists can say about correct gendered behavior. Sinisalo nails that attitude perfectly.
The idea of a devotion to good health creating a tyrannical regime is not new. I have a great deal of fondness for Steven Erikson’s novella, The Healthy Dead, in which he mercilessly lampoons California. I particularly love the idea that people have become so oppressed by good health that they call upon the necromancers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, for help.
The Core of the Sun is mostly not comedy, though it too ruthlessly satirizes those who think they know what it best for others. More importantly it shows how easily nonsense like evolutionary psychology can be used as a justification for imposing a deeply unjust society. It is beautifully done, and elegantly rendered into English by Lola Rogers.
If really thoughtful feminist science fiction is your thing, there is no one better at it today than Johanna Sinisalo. If you haven’t checked out her work before, please make the occasion of Worldcon in Finland an excuse for doing so.
For more information about Johanna Sinisalo, see the SF Encyclopedia.
Buy this book from:
The Book Depository