Following a dazzling science-fiction trilogy, Rajaniemi (Invisible Planets, 2017, etc.) offers a sort of neo-steampunk spy story wherein the afterlife is real.
Discovered by Victorian scientist-spiritualists—who else?—Summerland, a city of the dead, was built by a now-vanished alien race. To get there when you die you need only visualize a kind of four-dimensional hieroglyph called a Ticket. Occupied exclusively by the British (but why?), Summerland has a fully functioning infrastructure and economy (but why would dead people need this?), and its inhabitants can talk to the still-living via ectophone or visit the mundane by renting the body of a medium. On Earth, it’s 1938, and the Spanish Civil War threatens to explode, with Britain supporting the Fascists, while the Soviet Union (run with uncanny precision by a vast collective intellect whose kernel is the departed V.I. Lenin augmented by millions of dead souls) assists the Communists in a conflict fought with aetherguns and ectotanks. (Take a deep breath. Exhale.) British Secret Intelligence Service operative Rachel White learns the identity of a Soviet mole. Unfortunately, Peter Bloom is not only dead, but he works for the SIS’s Summerland branch. Worse, when Rachel reports the discovery, she’s ridiculed and reassigned to menial work—Bloom, you see, has close family connections to Prime Minister Herbert Blanco West (closely modeled on H.G. Wells, with what seems to be an admixture of David Lloyd George), so nobody’s willing to risk career and afterlife to investigate. Rajaniemi’s name-dropping yarn bulges with both real-world and imaginary spies and SIS agents, politicians, and scientists, but the impressive and apposite details—there are ecto-equivalents of most computer functions—often seem designed to obscure intractable flaws in the framework. Neither are the characters easy to take a shine to when the dead ones have more substance and simpatico than the living.
A jaw-dropping, knowing, hyperintelligent yarn that, like the author's previous outings, would have benefitted from fewer smarts and more warmth.