Libertarianism, feminism, chili peppers, drugs, desire, dictatorship & dystopia: Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, the 2017 Prometheus Award Best Novel winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history, and make clear what makes each winner deserve recognition as notable pro-freedom sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society is continuing to present weekly Appreciations of past Prometheus Award-winners. Here’s the latest Appreciation for Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, the 2017 Best Novel winner:

By Michael Grossberg
The Core of the Sun, by well-known Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo, is both feminist and libertarian in its evocative themes.

In the quirky and imaginative 2016 novel, translated by Lola Rogers from the Finnish language and published by Grove Press/Black Cat, Sinisalo vividly imagines a dystopian alternate history of Finland in which a patriarchal and authoritarian government enforces a social system, a War-on-Drugs Prohibition of individualistic pleasure and a eugenics program that breeds and virtually enslaves compliant women.

Set in 21stcentury Finland after a century of male-dominated government breeding and cultural reinforcement of its women to be slower-witted and more childlike, the fast-paced story unfolds in short chapters with epistolary and personal interludes that evoke a struggle of women within an alternate-reality Finnish culture somewhat evocative of The Stepford Wives (a cautionary feminist novel by Ira Levin, the Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for his dystopian novel This Perfect Day.)

Social stability and public health, along with a War-on-Drugs Prohibition, are strongly enforced and favored over social change, creativity, personal expression, self-fulfillment, curiosity and diversity – the latter, of course, all part of the constellation of values and attitudes that we know flourish much more under a classical liberal/libertarian polity.

The novel’s title refers to a religious cult centered on use of a chili so hot that it seems to spark hallucinations. Attentive readers will notice implicit historical comparisons and polemical commentary as the oppressive government wages a war on the drug and in a puritanical way, suppress the pleasures and wild intensities that the drug arouses evokes similar efforts in history.

While coping with strong feelings about her lost sister, the heroine Vanna (Vera, before being renamed to minimize the unfeminine letter “r’ in her name) battles an oppressive, manipulative and male-dominated welfare-state regime that makes women obedient housewives and mothers and bans alcohol, mind-altering drugs, caffeine and hot peppers.

Young Vanna’ growing addiction to illegal chili peppers is one of the most distinctive and quirky aspects of this coming-of-age and awakening-to-full-selfhood fable.

Rich in atmospherics and vivid in its imaginative portrayal of synesthesia as one side effect of consuming especially hot chili peppers, this novel also reminded me of the central character’s drug-laced awakening into a libertarian-leaning revolutionary in A Time of Changes,Robert Silverberg’s Nebula-winning 1971 novel that is one of five Prometheus Award finalists for the 2020 Hall of Fame.

Vanna’s secretive explorations propel her on a dangerous and unpredictable quest for passion, adventure, self-discovery and sisterhood (in a major subplot as Vanna tries to discover what happened to Manna, her more obedient and doll-like sister). Beyond the domineering men around her, Vanna’s real enemy is the paternalistic and all-controlling State.

In her names for two classes of women, each oppressed in different ways by the patriarchal and dictatorial government, Sinisalo directly references H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, which imagined a perverse distant future ecology in which sheeplike Eloi are controlled, fed and ultimately consumed by beastly Morlocks. Those familiar with Wells will immediately see the parallels as Sinisalo’s eugenics-bred sub-species of passive, slavish women, used by men for sex and procreation, is called “eloi.” Meanwhile, any remaining intelligent women, stigmatized as morlocks, are sterilized, prevented from marrying, and sent into menial labor where they are unable to reproduce, thus ending their “defective” breed of independent and self-reliant femininity.

Given the uncomfortable history of the racist pseudo-science of eugenics in the early 20thcentury in the United States and Europe, and its close association with the progressivism and movements of that era (including alcohol Prohibition and the initial racial-class motives of the founder of Planned Parenthood), Sinisalo’s novel also implicitly can be read by American readers, at least, as a cautionary tale with disturbing echoes of darker chapters in U.S. history. (People in Finland, however, may well see different and more immediate parallels to their own political and cultural history, including allusions and nuances in the story that American readers inevitably miss.)

Meanwhile, Sinisalo’s salutary focus on the excesses of an extreme welfare state (dubbed a “eusistocracy”) are fascinating and telling, given common American misperceptions about the alleged socialism of Finland and other Scandinavian countries and especially a tendency on the American Left to idealize and distort the welfare-state model without recognizing its flaws and potential for further abuses of power.

Sinisalo’s novel also evokes comparisons with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Worldand Margaret Atwood’s The HandMaid’s Tale, another modern classic about how unlimited government, fused with patriarchal fundamentalism, produces terrible tyranny (and not just for women.)

Ultimately, though, The Core of the Sun is unusual and individualistic enough to forge its own powerful and lingering impression, separate from any other antecedent works.

This story stands on its own as a powerful dystopian tale about the perils of tyranny and the inevitable violation of basic rights when any one group or gender or race is stigmatized and subjugated.

Johanna Sinisalo (Credit: Creative Commons photo)

Note: Johanna Sinisalo is also known for Troll: A Love Story, a Finlandia Award-winning novel.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog:  A 40th Anniversary Celebration and combined appreciation by William H. Stoddard of the next two novels to be recognized with a Prometheus Award: Travis Corcoran’s The Powers of the Earth and its sequel Causes of Separation, the 2018 and 2019 winners.

* See related introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners:  For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as or more vital as political change (and often more productive and creative!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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