Early shout for book of the year
MARGARET Atwood and Aldous Huxley get down with Carlos Castaneda in The Core Of The Sun, an adventurous and original dystopian satire which isn’t likely to be forgotten in a hurry. The follow-up to Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story, it’s set in an alternate world where Finland long ago shut itself off from the rest of the planet to become a “eusistocratic republic” – a land in which everything is done in the name of the health and stability of its citizens. Carried away by the craze for eugenics in the early 20th century (and particularly galvanised by Belyaev’s experiments in domesticating silver foxes), the Finnish authorities have selectively bred and relentlessly conditioned the country’s female population into “femiwomen”, popularly known as “eloi” after the infantilised humans of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
The eloi are submissive, suggestible, stereotypically “girly” and motivated only by the desire to serve their menfolk. They’re also competitive when potential husbands are at stake, so the concept of sisterly solidarity never gains any purchase. Interestingly, in a parallel with Balyaev’s experiments with foxes, their physical characteristics have altered, too. As each generation of women has grown more docile than the last, so too have they become more childlike in appearance. Inevitably, the selective breeding sometimes fails, resulting in smart, independent women. These are nicknamed “morlocks”, placed in manual jobs and prevented from breeding.
The central character in Sinisalo’s book, Vanna, is an unusual case, being a morlock who is physically indistinguishable from an eloi and who has spent her life up to this point mimicking their servile demeanour, and sashaying hips. Furthermore, she’s haunted by the disappearance of her younger eloi sister, Manna. Manna has been declared dead, and her husband given a token jail sentence for her murder, but Vanna can’t shake off the feeling that she might still be alive.
So successful is Finland’s isolation from “the hedonistic countries” that it’s become a completely dry country, devoid of alcohol, tobacco or any other kind of stimulant. This has led to a thriving black market in chili peppers, the Finn’s drug of choice. Tormented by her anomalous gender identity and the loss of her sister, Vanna has become a chili addict, a connoisseur of its active ingredient, capsaicin.
Yes, The Core Of The Sun gets weirder still, and it’s fascinating to explore this carefully thought-through dystopia and examine its unholy alliance between eugenics, patriarchy and isolationism, especially as the subversive potential of the chili pepper is gradually revealed.
Vanna and her chili-dealing friend Jare become involved with a cult which plans to breed the most powerful mindaltering chili, and the secluded farm on which Vanna grew up would be the perfect place to do it. Sinisalo manages to shape these diverse strands into a surprisingly coherent narrative, which, as it gathers pace in the second half, becomes very hard to put down. It’s dark, biting, unlike anything you’ll read this year and, ultimately, a triumph.