In 'Summerland,' Spies Take Secrets To The Grave — And Beyond Hannu Rajaniemi's new book imagines an alternate 1930s in which ghosts are real, the afterlife is real — and the disembodied mind of V.I. Lenin is trying to expand Communism from beyond the grave.
NPR logo In 'Summerland,' Spies Take Secrets To The Grave — And Beyond

In 'Summerland,' Spies Take Secrets To The Grave — And Beyond

Good spies takes their secrets to the grave. But that's not good enough for Hannu Rajaniemi.

No, in his new novel, Summerland, death is just the beginning. A transition between states, really. Like a fast vacation to a strange and wholly alien shore from which there is nothing but the briefest of returns.

See, Summerland is an alternate history spy story. One in which Marconi, rather than just (arguably) inventing the radio, went on to tune his wireless to some high, weird frequencies that allowed him to talk to ghosts, then shared his invention with the British, had it lifted by the Commies and triggered a war in the afterlife.

Okay, so maybe it isn't quite so prosaic as that. It is, in fact, worlds more complicated. But the nut of Rajaniemi's alternate take on the late 1930's is that ghosts are real, the afterlife is real, heaven is real, and all of it has been populated by British people and the god-like, disembodied mind of V.I. Lenin, commanding the expansion of international Communism from beyond the grave.

Yes, it is exactly as strange as it sounds. And also less. It is a kind of post-Victorian, pre-dieselpunk, parlor spy drama that occasionally breaks out into full-blown action sequences with ectotanks battling on the streets of a dream-Spain and zeppelin raids over London. It reads like John Le Carré if Le Carré ate a ton of acid before writing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and like Le Carré's best stories, Rajaniemi's Summerland is concerned primarily with a mole operating at the highest levels of British intelligence.

In this case, the mole is working secretly for the Russians in the Spanish Civil War, and is unmasked early by a Russian defector being run by the very much alive intelligence operative Rachel White. Trouble is, this mole is very well connected. He comes from the right family, knows all the right people. Trouble is, this is 1938 and Rachel White is a woman—generally dismissed by her male colleagues, accused of hysteria and all the usual things when she tries to blow the whistle and get anyone to believe her. Trouble is, this mole is also dead and operating in Summerland (which is what the afterlife is called), putting him somewhat beyond the reach of the merely living.

Rajaniemi builds his world meticulously, assembling a post-living world that feels as fully realized as the one on the other side of the living/dead divide. There are rules, laws, physicality, a confounding amount of spiritualist infrastructure that was (maybe?) put there by aliens or an ancient race of powerful ghosts. Technology has been built up around this edifice of the dead – ectophones, spirit radios, machinery that facilitates the transition between life and death (nothing so simple as a gun or a really big rock, though those work, too), mediums who can host the dead in their living bodies, allowing them to walk around and interact with the living. There's an entire currency in spirit energy that plays an important part.

And while that half of Rajaniemi's world is detailed, tinkery and carefully explained, it is also cold. Antiseptic, even. In the real world, there's the smell of leaves and fresh dirt, smoke and smog, the sting of gin, the humdrum physical details of life which he handles artfully. In the other, there's little more than mist and oddity. But the characters acting within them are the opposite.

Rajaniemi's dead are more interesting than his living. They want more, want harder, struggle more fiercely. They live (wrong word, but still) brighter and bolder than the living ever do. And whether that's deliberate or accidental, that sort of double asymmetry is ... jarring. Rajaniemi seems to spend most of his time in Summerland trying to narratively claw his way back into the land of the living. His living characters? Most of them seem to want so badly to be dead and in the afterlife that you'd think the place was made of ghost candy.

It's an unusual novel, is what I'm saying. Disconcerting in the strangest of ways. As a spy story, it is right in the sweet spot—moles and traitors, double-agents, lots of acronyms, trenchcoats and a war that needs settling. You can feel the London chill, almost hear the paper peeling off the walls of abandoned safehouses deep in enemy territory. But the addition of the supernatural vaults it into a whole different universe of odd, laying the spy stuff on a narrative armature that almost can't support it. Because when death is no longer the end, where do your stakes come from? And how do you know who wins and who loses?

Maybe, like most spy stories, you never really do. Or maybe it's when Rachel sits down after all is said and done and sees the newspaper headline that reads LENIN'S GHOST SUGGESTS PEACE TALKS.

Because that's how Summerland is. By the end of it, you won't even think that kind of thing is all that strange.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.