Author interview with Hannu Rajaniemi

Author interview with Hannu Rajaniemi

Author bio:
Hannu Rajaniemi is a Finnish author of science fiction and fantasy, who writes in both English and Finnish. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is a founding director of a technology consultancy company, ThinkTank Maths.

Rajaniemi was born in Ylivieska, Finland. He holds a B.Sc. in Mathematics from the University of Oulu, a Certificate of Advanced Study in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. in Mathematical Physics from the University of Edinburgh. Prior to starting his Ph.D. candidature, he completed his national service as a research scientist for the Finnish Defence Forces.

While pursuing his Ph.D. in Edinburgh, Rajaniemi joined Writers' Bloc, a writers' group in Edinburgh that organizes semi-regular spoken word performances and counts Charlie Stross amongst its members. Early works included his first published short story Shibuya no Love in 2003 and his short story Deus Ex Homine in Nova Scotia, a 2005 anthology of Scottish science fiction and fantasy, which caught the attention of his current literary agent, John Jarrold.

Rajaniemi gained attention in October 2008 when John Jarrold secured a three-book deal for him with Gollancz, on the basis of only twenty-four double-spaced pages. His debut novel, The Quantum Thief, was published in September 2010 by Gollancz in Britain and in May 2011 by Tor Books in the U.S. A sequel, The Fractal Prince, was published in September 2012 by Gollancz and in November 2012 by Tor.


Hi Hannu, welcome over to The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions.

BP: First off, could you give us a short introduction as to who Hannu Rajaniemi what are your hobbies, likes and dislikes?
HR: I am from a small town in Finland, which defines me quite a lot, I think. I have very limited time for hobbies – besides the obvious ones like reading, I am really into CrossFit at the moment, just to counterbalance all the time spent in front of a keyboard. I like challenges, working hard at something difficult and getting it right. Also, rye bread (which is hard to get in Scotland). I dislike heights and not following the recipe while cooking.  

BP: The Quantum Thief was your debut science fiction book and kicked off the The Jean le Flambeur series, how did you come up with the idea of the series?
HR: It started with the vision of the Dilemma Prison. I had just read Robert Axelrod’s book, The Evolution of Cooperation, which talks about Prisoner’s Dilemma tournaments between computer programs and the relationship between the dilemma and the evolution of altruism – so the idea of a simulated prison that attempts to reform its prisoners came from that. Then I started thinking about the kinds of prisoners who would be kept there…  

BP: There is a high focus of science and physics in your books,  how did you come up with using these elements in your books?
HR: Well, a PhD in string theory sort of leads naturally to that! Also, modern physics is full of very beautiful ideas that in this case also resonated with the story I wanted to tell. For example, what does a futuristic gentleman thief steal in a post-scarcity society where nothing material has any value, and information is universally available? It turns out there is a theorem in quantum mechanics, the so-called no-cloning theorem, that states that quantum information, quantum states, cannot be perfectly copied… so they would have some inherent value, leading to the idea of a quantum thief. 

BP: Do you still know the moment when and where you decided that you wanted to become an author?
HR: I always wanted to be a scientist rather than an author, but joining my writers’ group in Edinburgh certainly gave me the ambition to get published, to see if I could do it.

BP: Writing a debut can be a daunting task, how did you went about and start writing it?
HR: Transition from writing short stories to writing a novel was a difficult process. I created this hyper-dense outline with every idea I could possibly think of -- and then when I actually tried to start writing, I got the worst writers' block I've ever had. Finally things came together during a weekend I spent with a fellow writers' group member Andrew Ferguson, sitting in his garden in Fife and talking about novel structure, scribbling on little Post-It notes. The end result was that I realised actually had an outline for three books rather than one... and the first part of that became The Quantum Thief. After that things were much easier.

BP: Did you gain valuable experience when you were writing The Quantum Thief that you were able to use in The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel?
HR: Yes, writing the first book gave me more of an intuitive feel of what works in a novel-length story and what doesn’t. It also gave me the confidence to get more experimental with structure, as with The Fractal Prince. The Causal Angel was in many ways the easiest book to write, as by that point the characters and the unfolding conflicts had a momentum of their own that I just tried to capture.

BP: If you would have to sell The Causal Angel with a single sentence, how would it go?
HR:A posthuman gentleman thief trying to redeem himself and a reluctant winged warrior looking for her lost love team up for one last time to stop the end of the world.”

BP: Did you encounter any specific problems so far in writing the any of the books in The Jean le Flambeur series?
HR:  I alluded to initial hiccups with the structure of The Quantum Thief. With The Fractal Prince, I wrote myself into a corner at one point with what looked like an unsolvable physics problem: I didn’t just want to handwave it away as that would have been dishonest. Fortunately, I got enough help from quantum physicists friends to come up with a plausible solution…this is one of those things that would probably have been invisible to most readers but it really bothered me. With The Causal Angel, it took a while to figure out the motivation of the main antagonist. In general, writing (especially editing) is inherently a problem-solving process, you work your way through many different small problems and occasionally encounter major ones. That’s where it can get frustrating and often the only way out is to put the work away for a few hours or days and just wait for the right solution to come. 

BP: What has been the hardest part in writing so far?
HR: Dealing with that aforementioned frustration: trusting your subconscious to eventually to deliver the goods and keeping yourself occupied in the meantime.

BP: Besides the hardest part, which chapter/scene did you enjoy writing about the most?
HR: It’s hard to pin it down after the fact, but towards the last third of The Causal Angel I did briefly experience a proper writing trance that resulted in about 20,000 words in two days, where I felt I had no conscious control of the process. That was quite a powerful experience.

BP: If you would be given the chance to retract The Causal Angel and make one final adjustment, would you do so? If yes, which parts and why?
HR: I could spend forever honing the language, but I don’t think I would change anything major structurally. On the whole, I am quite happy with the way it turned out, and one important part of writing is to learn to let go of the story and move on to the next thing.

BP: The Causal Angel will conclude The Jean le Flambeur series, do you have other plans that you wish to pursue in the near future?
HR: In terms of writing, I have a further three-book deal with Gollancz and I am writing the first one of those at the moment: you could describe it as a Cold War spy thriller in an alternative ectopunk world – ecto as in ectoplasm, punk as in steampunk – where some of the stranger ideas of Spiritualists in the 19th century turned out to be true…

BP: Everyone enjoys science fiction and fantasy in their own way, what do you like most about it?
HR: In my opinion, all fiction is in some sense science fiction or fantasy: it all happens in an imaginary reality inside the writer's (and the reader's) head that really has very little to do with the real world.  Even mainstream fiction exaggerates certain aspects of everyday reality to serve the needs of the theme and the story. SF/fantasy just takes this a little further: if it's all imaginary anyway, why not introduce as many unreal elements as one likes, as long as they serve the purposes of the story and allow one to say things in ways that otherwise would not be possible?

I  also like the playfulness of speculation. For me, the essence of science in science fiction is the application of the scientific method: making a fantastical premise and carrying out a sort of thought experiment to see what follows -- in terms of character relationships, the setting and plot. And of course I have a certain childish fondness for the tropes of science fiction and fantasy: spaceships, conflicts on a cosmic scale, epic quests, lost kingdoms, superheroes... they have a mythic resonance that appeals to me, and my inner child.

BP: If you would have to give your top 5 favorite books, which would they be?
HR: This is subject to frequent changes and favourite is different from what I consider to be objectively best.. but in no particular order, Moominpappa at Sea, by Tove Jansson, Desolation Road by Ian McDonald, Under the North Star by Väinö Linna, The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.

BP: And just lastly, can you give us a sneak peak as to what will be in store for the readers for the conclusion in the Jean le Flambeur series in The Causal Angel?
HR: Maybe just one line of dialogue. ““We have received a communication from Jean le Flambeur. He claims that in precisely fifty-seven minutes, he is going to steal a ring of Saturn.”

BP: Thank you for your time Hannu and good luck with your future projects!


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