“Consciousness loops can actually inhabit another person’s consciousness”
Interview | Hannu Rajaniemi
Finnish writer Hannu Rajaniemi has won fans all over the world with his Jean Le Flambeur titles – The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel – which are published in Chinese by Sichuan Technology Press. Speaking at the EU-China International Literary Festival, Rajaniemi spoke about how strange loops and self-referential structures influence his work.
On one level, The Fractal Prince, for instance, was influenced by the story structure of the likes of The Arabian Nights, Tales from a Thousand and One Nights and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. “But what is maybe a little less obvious is that the other place where the influence for that structure comes from is from the work of artificial intelligence researcher and cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter who has a famous book called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid that is all about strange loops and these kinds of recursive, self-referential structures and how they play a key role in music, in mathematics, in biology. And what the studies argue is that our consciousness, our awareness of the world and our self-image is also this kind of strange loop. And of course, a novel is a kind of an attempt to convey a stream of consciousness or somebody’s point of view or make us feel how it is to be inside someone’s consciousness. It’s an attempt to have an explicit strange loop in novel form and then some of the story ideas entwine between loops, and there is the idea that one of these consciousness loops can actually inhabit another person’s consciousness,” Rajaniemi said.
“Stories are the means through which you can actually embed something so powerful in someone else’s mind that actually takes over their brains, and stories really do that, I mean the really powerful ones do change us in a very real way.”
Considering the type of stories that can inhabit or influence people’s consciousness, Rajamiemi said “music patterns are powerful. I do think there are story archetypes that recur over and over again. And I think, those archetypes have been outlined in different ways but there’s something definitely that underlies them, maybe there is some evolutionary biological or neuroscientific reason why those patterns occur. I think it might have been Robert A. Heinlein, who said that actually there are only two types of stories, where one type of story is someone goes on a journey, and the other type of story is a stranger comes to town, one or the other. I don’t know the answer, of course, on whether there is a universal answer to that but I think there are some music patterns that are recurring myths that we can mine and make our stories more and more powerful.”
In the first book of the trilogy, The Quantum Thief, the concept of memory was a key theme that resonated with Rajaniemi.
“In that book there is this concept of explicit memory which is like a collective repository of everyone’s memories. You also explicitly control to a great degree which memories you share with others so there is a sort of fairly explicit labeling of whose memories belong to whom in theory … an exploration of memory as a definition of identity is a big part of the book,” he said.
“I’ve been fascinated by the kind of various memory devices we use to essentially augment and extend our memories. Books of course are a part of that, journals, diaries. But in history, people have used these even more elaborate memory devices like memory palaces where you actually imagine a place which can be real or imaginary. And when we want to memorize something you use that place to encode explicitly. Maybe you just want to memorize a series of numbers, you might give each number a visual form, a memorable or a silly image and then you put it in your mind to a specific place in that memory palace. I’m told various people in the Renaissance, the universal geniuses around the times like Da Vinci and so on, they had incredibly elaborate memory palaces which contained the equivalent of whole libraries of information. So, I kind of like this idea of memory also as a place, as a physical environment.”
On the question of language, while Finnish is his mother tongue Rajaniemi said he finds advantages to writing in English.
“Finnish and English are extremely different as languages. I have written both in English and Finnish but much more now in English. I think that benefits of that are maybe twofold. So one aspect was that when I joined my writers group in Edinburgh which is where I started to doing my Ph.D studies when I joined a local writers circle, it was easier to write in English because I didn’t take criticism so personally. There was a degree of separation from the texts through the lens of writing in a foreign language. So it was easier to just try to hone the craft and try to accept some feedback. So whereas my first attempts at writing fiction in Finnish were very intensely personal and it would have probably not been as comfortable even workshopping them with a group. So, I think the extra degree of removal for English was what’s helpful. And then I think there is some creative tension from thinking about an expression in Finnish to trying to essentially translate that into English and often it leads to a more creative turn of phrase,” he said.