“The Force is from outside our time and space, from outside anything we can humanly comprehend. I conceive of a great machine somewhere—alien beyond human thought—sending out tendrils like electric impulses…In the days of the Kalevalan heroes, actually before our present cycle of civilization began, the Force was thrust in on Earth….”
Such is the theme of the first novel of Emil Petaja’s classic science fiction series based on the brilliant epic of Finnish lore, the Kalevala. A mighty saga of heroes and witches, of beings from the stars and beyond the stars, of powers that came to Earth and shaped humanity.
A student of the Kalevala, Petaja has created from its mind-stunning material a cycle of four novels—science fiction fantasy adventure of the highest order—retelling in the eyes of modern scientific conjecture the great worlds-shaking events that may be concealed by the folklore of an ancient and mysterious people.
SAGA OF LOST EARTHS, with which is included a complete second novel, THE STAR MILL, brings two of these unique sf classics back to today’s modern sf readers.
I love love love the cover of this book. The ISFDB credits it to “Penalva,” someone I’m not all that familiar with. Either way, great job on this one. I like how that hero guy is gonna hit that…thing. Whatever it is. I’m going to call it a FractalBot.
The book I’m reviewing is a part of an omnibus. Petaja wrote four books in his Kalevala series and they were re-released by DAW as two omnibuses (omnibi? omnipodes?) in 1979. This volume contains the book I’m reviewing and The Star Mill, which I didn’t read this week but I probably will sometime. I know that usually when I get one of these omninuseseses I do them one after the other. I’m bucking that trend because next week I have a little more time and I want to do this enormously long but ridiculous-looking book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. But don’t worry, because I thought this book was really interesting and I’m excited to read the next chapter in the series.
You might be wondering what, exactly, the Kalevala is. That’s okay. I didn’t know all that much about it until I read this book. I was dimly aware of it because Tolkien was inspired by it and said so on several occasions, but I didn’t know much about what was going on. I can tell you that it’s the Finnish national epic. Elias Lönnrot compiled the thing from old Finnish stories and his tale of finding those stories and putting them down is an epic tale in its own right. Mad props.
The epic poem has a lot of what you’d expect from epic poetry. It talks about how the world began, what the gods do and have done, and some heroes who go out and do some totally badass stuff.
When I saw that this science fiction book was “inspired by the Kalevala,” I didn’t know what to expect. My assumption that it would be the classic tales told again in a science fiction setting. Perhaps instead of magic horses or something we get spaceships. I was expecting something along the lines of “Find and replace Lemminkäinen with Steve.”
It turns out I was wrong. Steve is actually named Carl.
There was also a lot of original material in this story and it was not a simple retelling. It does have a few familiar elements to it both for fans of science fiction and scholars of Finnish folklore, but this was a really interesting story that was more mythologically inspired than almost any science fiction I’ve read.
But the main guy is still named Carl.
Carl is a good guy. He lives in…well…a science fiction dystopia. We can probably pin it down and call it a Class One Dystopia, where there are giant megalopolises and steel buildings and people are strictly controlled in terms of both what they can do and what they can feel. I don’t know if anybody else has done some kind of cataloguing system for science fiction dystopiæ, but this is where mine starts, going back to Zamyatin’s We, which I have to confess I only know of by reputation and synopsis and haven’t actually gotten around to reading. It’s on the list, I promise.
Carl’s dystopia is less sinister than most, but that might be because most of the book doesn’t take place in it. It starts there and then leaves for the wildlands of Finland.
See, something bad has been going on in Finland. A new metal has been discovered there in a mine, something they keep referring to as Rare Earth. When people touch the Rare Earth—which has started happening a lot because it’s useful for making things—they end up committing suicide. Carl is chosen to help figure this out because he has a high psi score. He meets a guy named Dr. Enoch, who has a beautiful daughter named Silia, and learns about the Kalevala.
Dr. Enoch believes that the folk tales of the Finns are more grounded in reality than anybody ever thought. The heroes of the Kalevala were real and they fought real enemies from another dimension. Finns are naturally high in psychic powers so it would make sense that they are able to detect and fight these “demons.”
Carl is in some way the spitting image of the Kalevalan hero Lemminkäinen and Dr. Enoch thinks they can use that to fight off the return of these crazy demon things.
So now we go to Finland and get into some adventures and learn that the boundary between myth and reality isn’t quite as thick as we thought it was. We also learn, offhand, that Finns are possibly from space, so that’s cool. Some of the characters from the Kalevala show up and do stuff. Carl himself sets out to find the magical ironsmith of the tales, Ilmarinen, who gives Carl a silver sword.
Silia gets captured by the bad things and is forced to marry one of them. It’s at this point that the narrative breaks from this story and straight up becomes a story of Lemminkäinen that might have been taken wholesale from the Kalevala but I’m not sure. I had mixed feelings about this part. On one hand it was kind of hard to follow and it seemed detached from the rest of the book, but on the other hand I feel like the whole point was that Carl had left the real world and had become part of the mythological world and that all this stuff that was going on actually was going on but now it was being told in these mythological terms because now Carl has learned to totally believe that the stories are true.
I have to wonder if Neil Gaiman read this book, because sometimes it reminded me of American Gods.
After the extended Lemminkäinen sequence we return to Carl. He goes to Tuonela, which I gather is some sort of afterlife thing in the Kalevala, but in this case it turns out to be the invading extradimensional creatures’ home dimension. He does some cool stuff with his magic sword, there’s a battle, and then he gets joined by the other heroes of the Kalevala and it’s really badass. The bad guy dies and the story ends, right there.
Seriously, there’s no denouement at all in this book. I’m wondering if that was some sort of a cliffhanger, then, although usually cliffhangers happen when it looks like the hero is in serious danger and not when he or she has just won. Still, there are three more books in this series, so I’m curious about what’s going to happen in The Star Mill.
The book was really short. 112 pages short. I didn’t feel like there was much wasted time, though, and the story was efficiently told, so those 112 pages packed quite a lot of stuff in them. It was a dense read, full of reference and detail that might have reminded me of Gene Wolfe except for the fact that it didn’t make my head hurt (in a good way).
At first I felt like the whole Big Cities dystopia element at the beginning felt tacked on or weird or forgotten about, but it did play a background role. Part of the reason the ancient enemies of the Kalevala were coming forth was because the dystopian society was working too well. It had something to do with the suppression of aggression (good band name) and it boiled down to people denying their own natural impulses, impulses that in the past had helped people fight back these alien enemies. I want to think it was hinted that these ancient battles (during a whole ‘nother cycle of civilization, as it were) were fought all over the world and impacted more mythological dramas than just the Kalevala but I can’t honestly say that that was ever mentioned.
The thing is, the Big Cities dystopia wasn’t dealt with in any meaningful way as a solution to the problem of the extradimensional demons, but perhaps that’s coming in one of the future books.
Still, it’s an interesting idea. Petaja took a pretty cliché science fiction trope and then used it in a way I’d never seen before. Most Class One dystopias are all about a guy who wants FREEDOM fighting back against the tyrants who deny him his FREEDOM OMG FREEDOM. In this book it’s about the problems that arise when people’s imaginations are suppressed. Perhaps there are unintended consequences, such as alien demons from ancient Finnish lore coming through via a newly-discovered metal.
One bit that’s pretty funny is that the world these demons inhabit is described as being made of “anti-matter.” It’s not antimatter in the sense that we currently understand it, it’s just different and “backwards.” The anti-matter beings don’t like light and sound, for instance. What’s interesting is that if you think of stuff on a spectrum with matter on one side and anti-matter on the other side, the Rare Earth discovered in Finland is the overlap point, which is what allows the anti-matter demons to do their thing. They can’t directly interact with the world of matter, but they have potent psychic powers that allow them to take control and do bad things. The reason they want to do bad things isn’t actually explained at any point—I think they were just generically evil—but that’s okay, because this is a neat idea.
This book had an interesting effect on me that I want to try to describe. It didn’t leave me feeling particularly excited or overwhelmed by anything. On an emotional level, I spent this entire novel feeling somewhat blasé about the whole thing. But looking back on it, I think there was a weird sort of satisfaction there, too. I liked this book in an odd way. Almost an offhand way. A comfortable way? Maybe that’s the best adjective? I don’t know. I really need to think about it.