Sam Jordison has birds on the brain.
Since it’s December, I don’t feel too nervous about declaring Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo’s Birdbrain (translated by David Hackston) [Purchase] one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. It is… well… the fact that it’s so hard to describe is part of its appeal.
At face value, it’s the story of young couple go for a hike on the remote edge of Tasmania, eager to explore one of the last untouched, unknown parts of the world. Jyrki is a rational meticulous planner, always pushing to squeeze an extra few miles out of the day; desperate to get deeper into the wilderness and further away from the decadence and environmental ignorance of conventional civilisation. Desperate also to push into the far frontiers of human experience. His girlfriend Heidi has less of a moral mission. She is pulled along the way by love for the charismatic Jyrki, and pushed by hate for her father back in Finland. Yet in many ways she’s more resourceful. It’s she who manages to supply loo paper when Jyrki under-packs. It’s she who works out a way of getting warm water for a shower… Even if the bottle she keeps under her clothes has a strange habit of disappearing and reappearing in unexpected places.
Sinisalo describes the walk so well that I became jealous of the time they get to spend out there in the wild. Everyone who knows the appeal of strapping on a rucksack and breaking out of the city will recognise the exhilaration Jyrki and Heidi feel as new landscapes unfold before them, as they sense their legs growing stronger with every mile, as they find themselves cut off from humanity but enveloped by nature. The sore feet, the battering they take from the weather, the tough terrain, the heavy, exhausted sleeps in rudimentary night shelters all just make it seem more real and add to the appeal of the challenge. I was also unsettled to see plenty of myself in Jyrki and the way he’s always trying to push his long-suffering girlfriend to just complete a few extra miles.
Interesting as all that may be, Sinisalo is also pushes for something more. The fact that she so often quotes from Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness [Purchase] provides the biggest clue. We are supposed to look for something beyond “the surface” (as Marlow might put it.) For instance, Sinisalo plants the idea that the Tasmanian wilderness may be cruel by introducing Conrad’s famous anthropomorphism: “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.” It gets us into just the right state of mind to read volumes into Jyrki’s description of the Eucalyptus tree as being “like a suicide bomber” because of the way it has adapted to fire, with highly flammable sap that helps other plant life burn, but a thick layer of bark protecting the tree growing inside.
Of course, quoting Conrad is a risky tactic. Good as Sinisalo and her translator may be, the prose in Birdbrain is not flattered by comparison to the Polish master. But what is? His presence otherwise works very effectively, especially in providing a shorthand for so many of the things that go on in the book.
One of the unusual and appealing things about Birdbrain is that the weirdness only properly kicks in on the last few pages. It takes a long time before the literal minded Jyrki can’t find a perfectly reasonable rational explanation for everything that happens to him and Heidi; before we have to look outside nature. But all those quotes and ideas from Conrad1 help us realise there’s something going on long before Jyrki. We know that the book is going to be a trip into inner space, an exploration of man’s potential for savagery, an encounter with the unknown.
Crucially, we understand Jyrki’s desire to reach out into the unknown all the better for knowing that he is following Conrad’s Marlow into “the dark places on the map”. That sense that there is so much potential for self-discovery (and also horror) in stepping beyond the normal confines of human experience. For Marlow it was a river trip into the relatively unexplored regions of the Congo, for Jyrki it’s the edge of the habitable civilisation. But of course, what they’re both also doing is testing themselves against these alien landscapes. Finding their place in the world by stepping out of it. Finding out about human civilisation by going to places where there isn’t any… All things that ensure a knowledge of Conrad adds new depths to a reading of Birdbrain — and that have long made Heart Of Darkness such an essential book for anyone with an interest in quality SF.
‘Essential’ is a big and much abused word, I know. But it’s justified in the case of Heart Of Darkness. It’s one of those books that is so good and so influential that descriptions that would normally seem hyperbolic are just straightforward statements of fact. It’s a work of genius and SF just wouldn’t be the same without it. See?
I’m also aware that there’s slight potential for friction in that Heart Of Darkness — on the “surface” at least — might not seem a likely kind of book to have shaped so much modern speculative fiction. Conrad sticks firmly inside known reality in his story of the Victorian sailor taking a steamboat up a jungle river to meet a half mad emissary of modern civilisation.
Okay, I know ‘reality’ is perhaps even more of a loaded word to use than essential. Especially in the context of Heart Of Darkness and speculative fiction. But it’s an important word when it comes to historical critical appreciation of the novel. Conrad is notable, after all, as the writer whom F.R. Leavis was most keen to wall inside his Great Tradition — the essential canon of Western writers — thanks to his “vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity.”
This insistence on experience is probably one of the historical reasons that the establishment canon has had so little space for speculative fiction. Even though Leavis was always an isolated and unpopular figure, his ideas (some of which are, after all, very interesting) have been surprisingly durable. So Heart Of Darkness is seen to be one type of book and, say, Rendezvous With Rama is another. With the former far more likely to appear on exam syllabuses, for better or worse.
Fortunately, such theoretical debates and artificial academic boundaries have never stopped Conrad (who let’s not forget once co-authored a science fiction story with Ford Madox Ford ) travelling far and wide in the SF multi-verse.
To get a snapshot of just how far, take a look at the entry on Heart Of Darkness in the forthcoming new edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (edited by John Clute and David Langford, editor emeritus Peter Nicholls):
The text has more than once served as a model for works by modern SF writers, including Michael Bishop’s Transfigurations (1979), James Blish’s “A Dusk of Idols” (1961 Astounding), Timothy Findley’s Headhunter (1993), Paul J McAuley’s White Devils (2004), Ian McDonald’s Brasyl (2007), Lucius Shepard’s Kalimantan (1990 UK), Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth (1970), Joanna Sinisalo’s Birdbrain (2008), and others, all driven by similar concerns: whenever an SF explorer or supplicant comes across a ravaged cod-godling “white man” in the tropical heart of an alien planet (or of this one), Conrad’s memory has shaped the tale.2
When I put out a call on Twitter asking for ideas about SF novels that might have been inspired by Heart Of Darkness I was similarly overwhelmed. Again, that idea of moving deep into alien lands figured strongly. There is something irresistible about that jungle river trip, with hostile unknowable forces lurking in every shadow and the bright light of civilisation coming not in ‘improvement’, but the flashes of guns senselessly pounding the wilderness. It’s there in Lucius Shepherd’s Life During Wartime, Richard Paul Russo’s Inner Eclipse, JG Ballard’s Drowned World, Ian MacDonald’s Chaga saga and Brasyl, Norman Spinrad’s slice and dice epic The Men In The Jungle.
Sometimes though it was more a question of atmosphere. The journey into unexplored territory can also be a trip inside the mind. Here the key mentions were Lem’s Solaris and, sticking with the Tarkovsky theme, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (the basis for the Conrad-heavy film, Stalker).
Sometimes it was indefinable if undeniable: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
As one respondent told me, it would have been more sensible to ask the collective intelligence if there were any SF novel written in the last fifty years that hasn’t been touched by Heart Of Darkness. To test that point, let me put the question to you. If you’re a reader of Salon Futura who hasn’t felt Conrad’s influence, please add a comment below this article. You might not have read Heart Of Darkness, but have you also avoided Apocalypse Now, J.G. Ballard, Tarkovsky, The Waste Land, not to mention all the books listed above?
If you are that rare someone for whom simply mentioning Heart Of Darkness in the right context doesn’t produce a wealth of images and ideas, I’d still recommend Birdbrain. Although I’d recommend Conrad more first. Just so that when you get to Sinisalo you understand that shorthand she uses so effectively. Those references to Heart Of Darkness that have resonated in so much SF let us know that there’s something going on beneath the surface. They tell us that Jyrki and Heidi’s story is more than a simple hiking trip. They give us an overwhelming sense of lurking evil, hidden danger, the powers of darkness and of the horror, the horror. It’s the fascination of the abomination and it works almost every time.
1. Along with, admittedly some slightly clumsy cut scenes to a malign presence back in Finland
2. Extract from the forthcoming Third Edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction used with kind permission of John Clute. The Encyclopedia lists Birdbrain as a 2008 book as that is the date of the original Finnish publication.