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Mikael Niemi, Svålhålet - Berättelser från rymden (The Swill Hole - Tales from Outer Space)

Norstedts,  2004. ISBN: 9113013505

Reviewed by Martin Murrell in SBR 2005:1

English Translation: Astrotruckers, translated by Laurie Thompson. Vintage, 2008. ISBN 9781843432784.

Mikael Niemi’s second work for adults comprises nineteen tales, linked through setting, themes and narrative voice, and described by the author as science fiction. As Tornedalian sci-fi, laced with absurdity and burlesque, it is, as readers would expect, more fantasy than science. “The Swill Hole, the hostelry on asteroid Nugg, is the worst slop chute a ‘naut’ can flop down in.” So begins the tale that gives the book its title, Svålhålet (The Swill Hole), depicted on the dust-jacket by Patrik Lindvall as a kind of geyser spewing out rocks, rather than what it really is: the worst kind of “sylta” imaginable, a soap-opera meeting-place where lifeforms (capable of warp-drive locomotion) from every corner of the universe can be seen, heard, smelled and touched. Niemi excels at conveying the experience of being there through vivid sensuous description, which in this genre can go to extremes, horrifying and frightening as well as delighting. Horror is evoked by events, too, and most of the tales contain elements of it. On the asteroid known in terrestrial parlance as the Scumbag ("Runkstrumpan"), in the second tale The Earth, the narrator commits mass murder by causing the various life- forms to laugh themselves to death. He simply tells them where he is from, firing off the word “jorden” like a bullet – the word’s sound associations rather than its referent triggering the fatal mirth. The narrator, who appears in more than half the tales, is a so-called “tassare”, i.e. a member of a crew of “nauts” padding about in space, officially collecting information (shades of TASS?). Allusions and direct references to other works and authors in various media abound, providing another type of loose structural link, often with satirical intent. Alongside these are contemporary figures and social and political groups, as well as the historically famous. Examples include Martinson’s Aniara, Lindgren’s Pölsan, comedian Lars Brandeby’s Kurt Olsson character and Hesse’s Glas-perlenspiel, along with Star Trek and the works of sci-fi writers such as Ray Bradbury and Douglas Adams, whom Niemi acknowledges as inspirations. The spider in Ponorists (“Ponoristor”: lit. “point-of-no-returners”) conjures up incidents in the lives of Mohammed, Frederick the Great and Robert Bruce. Then there are the suicide bombers, the Web (cf. Trasslet), the Mafia, McDonald’s, New Age spirituality and quantum theory. Night Shift is a horror story about the brief exploration of a long-abandoned spaceship, a dead woman and a dog named, inevitably, Laika. The list could go on. But we must beware of taking all this too seriously. In the blurb Niemi sums up his new work as “quite playful”. Fanciful and filled with fun these tall tales may be, but there are streaks of cruelty and dark pessimism, sensational horror and vulgarity, emptiness and coldness. Further, some characters are presented as cartoon-like figures – in the best fairy-tale tradition, perhaps, but such elements may put some readers off. Very different from his first adult work of fiction, Populärmusik från Vittula (2000, Popular Music from Vittula), Svålhålet is unlikely to meet with equal success, but its striking combination of the familiar and the bizarre, evocative language, splashes of colourful slapstick and, above all, highly skilful dialogue and narration make it an immensely readable, amusing, and at times startling, text. Mikael Niemi published his first novel for adults, Popular Music, in 2000, breaking all records for a first novel and winning the coveted August prize for the year’s best Swedish novel. It has been translated into at least 13 languages, including English .

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