Finnish sci fi novelist pens water-fueled The Memory of Water
April 24, 2014 | 12:46 pm
By Dan Bloom
From Finland, a new global talent emerges. Meet Emmi Itaranta.
Itaranta’s new climate-themed sci fi book The Memory of Water has been published in Finnish and 14 other languages worldwide. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly described the book as “a deceptively tranquil examination of a world of dust and ashes where the tenacious weed of hope still survives.”
Her debut novel also won the Kalevi Jäntti Literary Prize in 2012 and the Young Aleksis Kivi Prize in 2013 in Finland. She is surely someone to watch.
In a recent interview, I asked Ms. Itaranta if she thought of her book when she was writing it as a sci fi novel or as a novel without any genre label, she replied: “When I first began writing, I didn’t think of genre labels. A few chapters into the story I realized that it could be categorized as science fiction. Since climate change is a central part of the backstory of Memory of Water, I think it definitely [also] fits within the definition of ‘cli-fi’, so calling it a Finnish ‘cli-fi’ novel would not be out of place [either].”
She went on: “I question the necessity of genre labels in the first place. Genre labels are often artificial and hard to define – you probably won’t find two people who agree entirely on the definition of science fiction. But climate-themed speculative fiction is clearly on the rise, simply because fiction always reflects reality in some way.”
When asked what year her novel is set in — the near future or distant future? — she replied: ”I left the year unmentioned in the story on purpose and would prefer to keep it that way. I believe each reader’s interpretation of how far in the future the events take place reflects their own stance on how urgent an issue they feel climate change is. It might be thousands of years, or hundreds.”
So with a readership soon in 14 countries, how does Itaranta feel about having a global audience?
‘As for finding an audience, it is early days for that, too, because most translations are only coming out later this year or sometime in 2015,” she told TeleRead. ‘But the potential is of course both exciting and entirely unexpected. Mostly I try to keep my eyes on writing the next sentence. That helps me stay grounded.”
She began writing the novel in Finnish in 2008, she said, as part of a creative writing degree she was doing in Britain.
“I had nothing but fragments [at first], but they contained the essence of the story: a young woman preparing tea in a future world that was running out of fresh water,” she said.
Finland has also given the world the novelist Antti Tuomainen who wrote the cli-fi thriller The Healer in Finnish first. It received very positive reviews and was picked up by publishers worldwide and translated into a variety of languages, including English.
Itaranta said she knows his name, of course, but has not read The Healer yet, adding: “I’m intrigued by the premise, and that novel is on my reading list. I think climate themes are on the rise in Finnish novels. A few authors here in Finland (some translated, others hopefully so in the foreseeable future) whose novels have recently addressed climate themes in some shape or form would be Leena Krohn, Risto Isomäki, Tiina Raevaara, Laura Lähteenmäki, Anne Leinonen and Eija Lappalainen, for instance.”
Is Itaranta an optimist or a pessimist about the future of the human species in regard to climate change and overpopulation and the over-consumption of resources and other issues? ”I can see it going both ways, because as a species, we possess incredible imaginative and creative resources to overcome problems, but also an astonishing capacity for short-sighted greed and selfishness,” she said. “We have equal potential to save or destroy ourselves. At the moment, we unfortunately seem to be leaning towards the latter, but I’d like to think we are smarter than that.”
The premise of The Memory of Water is, to put it plainly, quite amazing: with a lack of drinking water in the future, the novel tells the story of woman named Noria who is trained to bring water to people. It’s an amazing image. The idea of becoming a “tea master” is central to the book.
”I have never been to Japan, but Zen philosophy and the Japanese Way of Tea were central inspirations for The Memory of Water, so I’m hoping to visit Japan within the next couple of years,” Itaranta said. “It is a culture that has interested me for a long time and that I still admittedly know little about. I’m looking forward to learning more.’
Her next book will not be a sequel, but ”an independent novel set in a different world.” she said, adding: “Water is an important element in this new book too, but this time in the form of floods — too much water, rather than too little. Of course, this is also imagery that has strong echoes of climate change. I believe we will see lots of fiction dealing with water shortages, water conflicts and floods in the years to come, because these are some of the central issues of our time. I don’t see them going away any time soon.”