Atwood or Bust: ‘The Core of the Sun’ Is a Feminist Dystopia in Finland

What happens if you touch a chili to your vagina? Is Finland a patriarchal, dystopian state? (What is going on in Finland, anyway?) How does international “weird” fiction translate in America?

All three (or four) of these questions are answered by Johanna Sinisalo’s new novel, The Core of the Sun (translated by Lola Rogers), which you may have gathered is a feminist dystopia set in a parallel version of Finland. Or possibly it’s a contemporary Finland exaggerated to the point of allegory. It’s hard to say. I don’t know much about Finland outside the movies of Aki Kaurismäki.

Back to the first question. We learn the answer in the form of a drug deal because in alternate-reality Finland — a “eusistocracy” obsessed with health — chilis are a drug. And the answer comes with tremendous humor in the novel’s opening pages, when the protagonist, Vera/Vanna (we’ll get to the double names later), meets a capso (or capsaicin) dealer in a cemetery. After lowering her skirt, noting the dealer’s sour smell (“a mixture of tar and spirea blossoms”), and inserting her index finger, she’s overcome by a synesthetic high:

First the burn spreads across my lower body, my labia and vagina turning hot as glowing embers. The first drops of sweat form under my eyes, then along the edge of my scalp, then down my neck. The blood rushes in my ears. The stuff thrums a dredging bass note, almost an infrasound, with fantastic dark brown tones in its burn.

If the drug-dystopia angle recalls A Brave New World — or, more likely, the dystopian and speculative work of Margaret Atwood — it’s meant to. To be sure, the novel has already met with comparisons to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for its depiction of a violent state that targets women with eugenic social programs and technologies.

In the case of The Core of the Sun, women have been subdivided into two groups: the ditzy, masco-pleasing, archetypically “feminine” eloi, and a lower group of supposedly asexual morlocks, a caste that is denied the privilege of “the reproductive market” and forced to become a reserve labor force. And if you couldn’t already tell, “mascos” (as opposed to “minus men”) are the ruling group of brutish males, who are allowed to commit all manner of murder and sexual violence to either group of women, and preside unquestioned over their fates. That these subdivisions of genetically and socially gendered groups are an explicit nod to the “predictions” of H.G. Wells both hints at the novel’s allusive depth and its later problems with old-school binaristic thinking. But first, the plot.

Told by way of an assemblage of letters, state reports, dictionary entries, first-person remembrances, and textbook snippets — rather like a strange version of the U.S.A. Trilogy — the story unravels the relationship between Vera and her sister Mira, who are both raised by their shrewd grandmother, Aulikki. Over the course of several unsent letters to her sister, Vera tells of how the two girls have been examined by “social workers” and recognized as eloi, which means that they will spend their younger days reading state-sanctioned magazines and taking classes meant to socialize them into a retrograde, servile form of femininity, one ultimately aimed at marriage and domesticity.

Over time, Mira (later “Manna” after achieving eloi status; Vera transitions to “Vanna”) becomes jealous of her sister, who she thinks has stolen a possible mate. This sibling rivalry only accelerates her evolution into an eloi, causing a split of sorts between the sisters, and pushing Manna into an early marriage. When Aulikki mysteriously dies and Manna goes missing early in her marriage, Vanna is left to cope.

Meanwhile, too, Vanna wrestles with her own femininity. Is she really a morlock? Partly in response to this internal wrangling, partly as a result of financial pressures, she begins selling and then taking capsaicin (again: chilis) with her friend Jare, a semi-enlightened masco. The whole operation eventually builds into a quasi-religious, hippie-punk drug-ring nearly worthy of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy — which is the novel’s truest touchstone.

Along the way, The Core of the Sun sometimes uses its ready-made, collagist form to smooth over difficult questions. When it becomes clear that the social and eugenics programs used to stratify women into castes would take hundreds of years to implement, for example, the novel simply produces state documents that explain the problem away. (More than once these documents take the form of, “this might seem impossible, but…”) It’s also hard to tell whether relatively naive forms of enlightenment achieved by the characters are meant to be a criticism of the state’s longstanding manipulation of their expectations. When Vanna learns about sexual freedom, for instance, she simply starts having regular sex.

But the core of The Core of the Sun is intact. As a mirror held slantwise to patriarchal violence, it is often convincing, and rarely without also being clever and comical. Likewise, as a repudiation of the egalitarian gloriousness of the “Nordic model,” it’s a thing we rarely behold in America: a feminist novel that propels you forward to its terrifying, pulpy conclusion.