Daniel Haeusser reviews short works of SFT that appear both online and in print. He is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Canisius College, where he teaches microbiology and leads student research projects with bacteria and bacteriophage. He’s also an associate blogger with the American Society for Microbiology’s popular Small Things Considered. Daniel reads broadly in English and French, and his book reviews can be found at Reading1000Lives or Skiffy & Fanty. You can also connect with him on Goodreads or Twitter.
translated by the author
Titan Books, July 2022
Earth-born healer Lumi Salo departs Europa after treating a client for the childhood home of her spouse Sol, where she’ll be able to reunite with them. With joyous anticipation of feeling their embrace again soon, Lumi continues to write Sol letters in the meantime, an exercise that makes her feel closer to them.
Sol’s mother and sister greet Lumi at their Martian home, but she is disappointed to find Sol has not yet arrived. The next morning, she receives only a short message of apology from her spouse. They won’t be able to make it, something important has come up with their work that they have to deal with immediately. But they should be able to meet up with her soon.
Lumi has only been granted the privilege of emigrating from humanity’s damaged, impoverished, and pockmarked home planet for the upper-class societies of the moon, Mars, and related fabricated habitats because of her training as a healer. Trained in the mystical healing art by her mentor Vivian, guided through otherworldly realms by her Iberian lynx spirit animal, Lumi traveled throughout the colonized solar system, finding and falling in love with Sol on Mars in the process.
A scientist specializing in astrobotany, Sol has worked on teams adapting plants to human colonies and in research seeking to use photosynthetic species to repair the Anthropocene’s damage to Earth. Whereas many loathe to put any political, economic, or social efforts into the welfare of Earth and its inhabitants, Sol feels an ethical responsibility on the unfortunate left behind in humanities journey into space.
As a healer, Lumi knows little about the details of Sol’s research. And as a scientist, Sol can’t really comprehend the magic that Lumi claims to experience. Coming from literally separate worlds, they are united by their love, and passions to use their skills for the betterment of others.
With each passing day without Sol’s return, Lumi’s worry grows. Whether waiting patiently in place for them, traveling to the next proposed location to meet up, or proactively going to seek them out, Sol remains elusive. Their messages to Lumi become less frequent and cryptic. And then Sol goes missing along with several other researchers in the aftermath of what appears to be a terror attack on a Martian research facility, drawing not only Lumi’s concern, but government interest.
Earth wakes and stones will speak, and darkness recedes over waters.
This enigmatic phrase uttered by her spouse during one of their last public interviews, written in a letter to Lumi, and microbe-grown on the walls of sites targeted by bioterrorism, stirs a memory from Lumi’s past. They are words she’s heard from the mouth of her mentor, Vivian. Starting with these clues, Lumi begins a search through the solar system and past memories and records to find her spouse. Through this she learns the full truth of their Project Earth research, its connection to her past, and the future of her home planet.
So, begins The Moonday Letters, a lyrical epistolatory novel of longing and hope. One part science fiction, one part fantasy, and one part mystery, it becomes linked by the strand of romance, the connection between Lumi and Sol even in separation. Composed mostly of Lumi’s letters to Sol, the novel also contains the messages from Sol to Lumi and other miscellaneous document records or transcripts. With a wistful voice, Lumi’s words flow with a poetic precision and empathetic peaceful calm. Yet, murmuring beneath that calm lies a continuous thread of unease, a growing panic that Lumi allows out in short moments, but mostly tries to tamp down through memories of happiness and togetherness. Nonethelss, Lumi never falls into denial or helplessness. She bravely steps forward to where different paths lead her, even to the dangerous edges and unknown territories of the mystical realms she walks as a healer, protected by her lynx.
Relatively early in the novel, Itäranta introduced me to a new vocabulary word: tralatitious. In one sense, the word simply means conventional, as in something passed down through tradition across generations. In another figurative sense, it refers to the transfer, or derivation, of a characteristic from some external source. I feel as though ‘tralatitious’ sums up many of the themes and elements of The Moonday Letters. It applies to the ceremony of Lumi’s healing rites, the meaning for reality drawn from the spiritual. It applies to the knowledge she has learned from Vivian, and to the relationship she has with the lynx, a symbiosis derived from the magic of the universe. It applies to Sol’s research (and how Lumi unknowingly impacted it.) It applies to Sol’s political and social beliefs, his actions. And it applies to the large-scale ecological themes of the novel, with their speculative setting of well-to-do colonies and a battered, vengeful Earth. The condition of the Earth has been passed down as surely as the technology and wealth gained for some through its exploitation.
And that word I put in the last paragraph, symbiosis, is also very central here. Symbiosis is in some ways a tralatitious biological state of existence, a genetic inheritance of relationship through the generations, and a derivation of a singular unit from two separate, external parts. Itäranta doesn’t just put that concept into The Moonday Letters in the metaphorical senses of the life shared by Lumi and Sol, but also in the biologically literal sense of lichen, a ‘species’ that is actually a symbiont of multiple species: fungal (at least two types), algae, and cyanobacterial. Lichen is central to the plot, and it is beautiful how well Itäranta incorporates the themes, characters, and plot of this novel into a glorious symbiotic whole. The Moonday Letters works on so many levels.
The mystery of the novel propels the novel forward, both character action and reader engagement. The only hurdle that I felt necessary to overcome while reading The Moonday Letters was a consequence of its epistolatory nature. Addressing her letters to Sol, Lumi doesn’t just write from a first-person perspective, but also the second-person ‘you’ to explain or recall events to them. In small bits, I can handle this, but there were certain stretches of the novel where I wanted to just skip over drawn out explanation of what ‘you did’. Sol should know what they did. They shouldn’t need Lumi explaining it to them and recalling all the details. This drives me nuts.
Now, after all that, readers here may wonder why this review is being put up on Speculative Fiction in Translation. The Moonday Letters is technically not a translation. Yet, it sort of is. Though published first in Finnish a couple years past, Itäranta wrote the novel concurrently in both Finnish and in English, separately. The two texts then went through unique editing processes. Thus, it’s not quite a translation by the author in the sense that the Finnish text became a template for the English. Instead, they each were composed in temporal alignment, likely feeding off one another, and then further evolved along distinct linguistic paths. Given how important language is to the novel – both in its atmosphere and its precision in words, I wish I were able to read Finnish to compare the two. But, I suspect like a tralatitious translation, The Moonday Letters and Kuunpäivän kirjeet have particular unique characteristics one to another, as well as a shared, symbiotic unity.