Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo, translated by Lola Rogers

The Blood of Angels
Johanna Sinisalo
Translated by Lola Rogers (from Finnish)
First published 2011, I read 2014 English translation
224 pages, eco-speculative, grief

Many thanks to Peter Owen Publishers for providing a review copy of this novel. 

In the near future,  Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which causes worker honeybees to suddenly vanish from their hives, has become a terrible threat to the human food chain. In the United States, it has caused food shortages and the collapse of the food production infrastructure. When Orvo, a solitary beekeeper in Finland, finds one of his hives empty except for a dead queen, he fears that the catastrophe has finally spread to Finland.

Then he suddenly finds a strange phenomenon: a window to another, uninhabited world. Does this have anything to do with the sudden disappearance of his bees? What about the death of his animal rights activist, teenaged son?

This novel details the beekeeper’s search for answers, interspersed with the posts and comments from his son's blogs.


One thing that this novel gets right is Orvo's grief after the death of his son. It is overwhelming. He finds it hard to function, hard to focus. He tries to distract himself by thinking about his bees: worrying about their sudden disappearance, researching possible explanations for the strange window he has found, and exploring the new world. Quite reasonably, he wonders whether this window is a grief-induced hallucination, so he sets about using manual photographic techniques to capture a picture. All of this gives him something else to focus on in the first few days after his son's death. 

In this investigation, he finds something that gives him hope for his son's spirit. Orvo believes that he could meet his son again one day, and that the window might help him do it. 

Animal Rights Activism

The form of animal rights activism that is shown in this novel is rather bizarre. It is unsurprising that these are beliefs espoused by teenagers. The logic of Eero (Orvo's son)'s blog posts (and the negative and positive commenters) is incredibly simplistic. This is especially the case with the negative comments, who are apparently part of an anti-animal rights movement in Finland. I don’t know if this is a real thing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. These internet trolls are really stupid, and continue to threaten someone who is (mostly) just asking that animals be treated better.

Eero's ideas are a bit more complex, but still simplistic and rather illogical. Eero is not advocating that people give up all modern amenities and go back to eating fruits, shoots, and roots. He recognizes that there are ways to live in a fairly "normal" way while still having less of a negative effect on the environment. But while his theoretical treatment of these issues is a bit more sophisticated, his actions and those of his friends are not. It seems that much of their activity concerns “liberating” domestic animals. But how does letting domestic animals go free into the wild help them? While this might be helpful in the short term (it does get them out of the little boxes they are living in), I am curious about how these activists think it is sustainable. Even if the pigs elude recapture, in all likelihood they will then become an invasive species and damage the environment in this area.

While these blog posts are included as a way to contextualize Eero’s activities and the reasons for his death, they seemed rather contrived. I would have preferred to read flashbacks or police reports or something instead.

Speculative Fiction

As speculative fiction goes, this one is light. The whole situation seemed to be contrived and, sadly, a bit derivative. Windows into other worlds? It seemed to be taken straight from His Dark Materials.

This novel is mildly interesting because of the beekeeper’s reaction to his grief, which is relatively well done. But that is the only reason I would recommend this book. Speculative fiction fans might be disappointed.

Further Reading: 

"Interview: Johanna Sinisalo and the Weird" from Weird Fiction Review
"Honey Bee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder" from the US Department of Agriculture

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