I haven’t read Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel Memory of Water, the English-language version of which was shortlisted for a slew of speculative fiction awards when it came out in 2014, but what I have heard of it seems to indicate that she’s dealing with similar themes in her sophomore effort, 2016’s The City of Woven Streets. Both novels are set in a dystopian society whose people are deprived of access to some basic human resource – water in the earlier novel, dreams in the later one – and both take a slightly allegorical approach to their subject matter. By the latter I mean that neither novel is strictly realistic in its worldbuilding, even taking into account the rules of their imagined settings; instead, they rely on metaphorical and emotional resonance to create meaning.
The City of Woven Streets, then, is the story of Eliana, a young woman who lives and works in the House of Weavers, on a remote and storm-washed island ruled over by the autocratic Council. Eliana has a dangerous secret: unlike her Weaver colleagues, she dreams. Should her secret be discovered, she’ll be whisked off to the House of the Tainted, never to be seen again. Her precarious position is complicated further when a woman named Valeria washes up in a storm, tongue cut out and with Eliana’s name written upon her hand. Eliana’s attempts to decipher her connection to Valeria, as she gradually falls in love with her, lead her to momentous truths about the island, the Council, and why nobody dreams.
The society in which Eliana lives is as much fantasy-medieval as it is anything else, albeit with a touch of steampunk: literacy rates are low, there’s little in the way of machinery or automation (save for the air gondolas that shuttle between the island’s various key buildings on cables), and women’s rights in particular are limited. Yet there’s a lot here that speaks to thoroughly contemporary concerns about environmental degradation and exploitation, in a way that directly connects these issues to the exploitation and oppression of indigenous peoples and the working classes. For instance, fairly early on in the novel, Eliana hears reports of masses of dead medusae – the jellyfish the people of the island use for pain relief – washing up on the shores; eventually, she discovers that the die-off was caused by a chemical that the Council uses to suppress dreaming in the island’s citizens. Later, Eliana is sent to the House of the Tainted herself, and finds out that the people imprisoned there are being used as forced labour to carry out the difficult and dangerous work of harvesting the red coral that is the island’s main export – and that the task is made more difficult and dangerous by the fact that the coral is becoming rarer and harder to reach as a direct result of this overexploitation of the sea’s resources. Finally, at the novel’s denouement, Eliana meets a sentient being below the House of the Weavers whose people were driven from the island by the Council and forgotten, and who possesses important knowledge about an impending cataclysm that’s about to strike the island – something that neither the Council nor the island’s human inhabitants know anything about.
It’s a novel, in short, that’s partly about the costs – environmental, social and economic – of treating both people and the environment as resources to be exploited for the benefit of a powerful elite. Itäranta’s transplantation of these concerns into a low-tech fantasy setting helps to bring them into sharp emotional contrast; shorn of the complexities of modern globalism, they can be seen more clearly, and confronted more directly. Her dreamy, flowing prose, verging on stream of consciousness in some places, contributes to this effect: it brings the tale into sharp emotional resonance, a resonance that more obviously “realistic” climate fiction (I’m thinking here of works like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora) struggles to achieve.
This is something that surprisingly few speculative fiction novels are trying to do, actually – I can’t, offhand, think of any fantasy-inflected novels that are interested in environmental exploitation in a way that relates so closely to the real world (I suppose Kristin Cashore’s new novel Winterkeep does have environmental themes, but they feel secondary to the personal drama her characters are dealing with), and certainly none that take this fabulist, metaphorical approach to it. It’s quite an effective one here, the deceptively simple surface of the text concealing some sophisticated thinking about structural oppression, and it’s something I’d like to see more of.