Finnish in Science Fiction

I’ve been interested in Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief for a while, but I’m only now getting around to reading it. Aside from the fact that it’s recent high-profile SF from a guy with amazing real-world science credentials, what really pushes my buttons is the Finnish connection.

flandry-of-terraFor me, Finland and SF have been long intertwined. When I was 14 I read Poul Anderson’s Flandry of Terra and spent a lot of time staring at Michael Whelan’s iconic cover, shown here. The guy pictured is obviously Dominic Flandry, but what really intrigued me was the crouching woman. Whatever icy planet they’re on, she’s an inhabitant of it (though I don’t remember the specifics of the story now) and 14-year-old me associated snowy climes with blonde inhabitants. So 14-year-old me wondered: what Earth culture would produce a lovely and exotic-looking young brunette like that?

It’s a silly question — but again, I was 14. In any case, something about her struck me as vaguely Lappish, and I had enough geographical awareness at that point to associate that with Finland. This was, to my memory, the first time I had given more than a passing thought to the Finns; but I was intrigued enough by the whole notion to check out Aina Rajanen’s Of Finnish Ways from the public library to learn more.

Basically, from the small seed of that cover image grew my fascination with Finland. A few years later, as part of an exchange program, I spent a summer living with the lovely Törmänen family in Kempele, a suburb of Oulu up near the crook of the Gulf of Bothnia. I had a great time, and though I haven’t been back since I’ve always wanted to return. But I married a woman who prefers the Mediterranean to the Baltic for her vacations (crazy hats!) and so haven’t quite had the chance.

My Finnish language skills were pretty basic, and still are — as most people know, it’s devilishly complicated, and unrelated to English or most other European languages (aside from Estonian and, distantly, Hungarian) and it has very little vocabulary recognizable to an English speaker. But I have a good enough handle on the language to be able to spot it wherever it pops up. For instance, in Philip José Farmer’s The Unreasoning Mask (a neglected SF classic, in my eyes) there’s a character named Nuoli who at one point exclaims “Jumala!” — nuoli being the Finnish word for arrow, and Jumala meaning God.

Aside from that, the only other Finnish in an SF work I’ve found is Dune, though it’s a bit disguised there. The name Harkonnen is very Finnish-looking — a vast number of Finnish names end with the distinctive -nen suffix. Looking around just now, I found a fascinating blog post about it — the closest Finnish name is Härkönen; a Finnish immigrant to North America would of course lose the umlauts upon arrival. The Dune wiki (which I didn’t know existed and will now probably spend hours browsing) points out that härkö is Finnish for ox, which is apparently the symbol of the Harkonnen family.

The other, even sneakier Finnish reference in Dune is the word Herbert uses for “poison” — as described in the book’s glossary:

CHAUMURKY (Musky or Murky in some dialects): poison administered as a drink.

The Finnish word for poison is myrkky — it seems too much of a coincidence given the Harkonnen naming. Basically Herbert was using Finnish for the nastiest things in the Dune universe, presumably as a sort of balance to the Arabic derivations common to the Fremen (interestingly, like Dune, The Unreasoning Mask also derives a lot of its terminology from Arabic, e.g. the alaraf drive that the living ships use to travel around).

There’s some pretty basic Finnish in The Quantum Thief: so far I’ve come across the names Mieli (mind) and Sydän (heart), a ship called Perhonen (butterfly), and some swear words. But it seems like Rajaniemi is intrigued by French the way I am by Finnish, mostly using French names for characters (his protagonist is called Jean le Flambeur, for God’s sake). So it looks like it’s up to me to, someday, introduce more expansive fennicization to the SF world.

Incidentally, my collection of Finnish-language learning material isn’t that big but in the world of private Finnish-language learning collections it’s probably unrivalled in its scope:

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3 Responses to Finnish in Science Fiction

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    I wonder if there’s a Finnish SF scene. I know there’s a Romanian one, and of course, Polish, Russian, French (obviously)… I suspect there is but obviously not in English.

  2. inthebrake says:

    There’s defnitely a Finnish SF scene — as I understand it, aside from Finnish authors, quite a bit of English-language stuff is read in the original (as well as in translation) as pretty much everyone under the age of 40 or so speaks and reads Finnish quite fluently.

    I’ve tried a few Finnish genre books that made it to English but more horror than SF though as I remember. Pretty interesting.

  3. inthebrake says:

    “…pretty much everyone under the age of 40 or so speaks and reads ***English*** quite fluently”, I meant to say.

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