Review: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

“Most of the soil we walk on once grew and breathed, and once it had the shape of the living, long ago. One day someone who doesn’t remember us will walk on our skin and flesh and bones, on the dust that remains of us.”
 ~Emmi Itäranta, Memory of Water

Plot summary

"Global warming has changed the world's geography and its politics. Wars are waged over water, and China rules Europe, including the Scandinavian Union, which is occupied by the power state of New Qian. In this far north place, seventeen-year-old Noria Kaitio is learning to become a tea master like her father, a position that holds great responsibility and great secrets.

Tea masters alone know the location of hidden water sources, including the natural spring that Noria's father tends, which once provided water for her whole village.

Tea. Photo: Pixabay

But secrets do not stay hidden forever, and after her father's death the army starts watching their town – and Noria. And as water becomes even scarcer, Noria must choose between safety and striking out, between knowledge and kinship.

Imaginative and engaging, lyrical and poignant, Memory of Water is an indelible novel that portrays a future that is all too possible." More on Goodreads

On Emmi Itäranta

"Emmi Itäranta (DOB 1976) was born in Tampere, Finland, where she also grew up. She holds one MA in Drama and Theatre Studies from the University of Tampere, and another from the University of Kent, UK, where she began writing her debut novel Memory of Water as a part of her Creative Writing masters degree. She later completed the full manuscript in both Finnish and English. The novel won the Fantasy and Sci-fi Literary Contest organised by the Finnish publishing house Teos. It was published to enthusiastic reviews in Finland in 2012 under the title Teemestarin kirja.

In 2015 the English language version, Memory of Water, was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award in the US and the Arthur C. Clarke award in the UK." More on Emmi's website

Key concepts

  • Water as a power tool
  • Lyrical melancholy
  • The sadness of being


Memory of Water (Teemestarin kirja in Finnish) is the first novel I read from Emmi Itäranta. I am sure it will remain as one of the best books I read this year. It was a pleasure and actually quite different from the other science fiction novels that I am used to. Very refreshing to say the least.

I really enjoyed reading the book, mostly I loved the lyrical lack of plot of the novel. I guess there is a strong element of internal movement: A lot of the things going on take place in the mind of the main protagonist – Noria. There is a contrast between what happens in the outside world in the fictional reality of the novel and in Noria's head but the link is portrayed beautifully in the most musical and rhythmic way.

I had the chance to follow a panel at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki on Saturday, 12 August 2017, entitled Pullantuoksuinen – Writing While Multilingual. The panelists discussed among other things challenges related to writing in a non-native language. With Memory of Water, Itäranta did the English translation herself. In the panel, she mentioned that often when translating one is bound to make compromises with the language. When first writes something in Finnish, she is already reflecting on how she will translate a particular word into English. The linguistic reflection affects the crucial decisions for the Finnish version.

Let me offer you one interesting background information related to terminology in Memory of Water. Emmi Itäranta mentioned in the panel that she had thought about the Finnish word "revontulet" which literally means "fox fires", referring to Northern lights. However, she did not wish to use Northern lights as such as the term did not capture what she had in mind for the rhythm of the concept of Aurora Borealis. In the end, she invented her own word for the phenomenon, "vedenvalkeat" in Finnish and "fish fires" in English. I think the Finnish word is optimal for the phenomenon.

Moderator Nina Niskanen and panelists Emmi Itäranta, Aliette de Bodard and Ken Liu at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki. Jakob Drud was also on the panel, but is not depicted in this photo. Photo: ST ©

In Memory of Water, there are several passages of absolute beauty. The language seems to flow like a river, in a dreamlike fashion. The realm of the novel is strange to the contemporary reader but one cannot think that many of the aspects could be part of the future of humanity unless we care more about the environment.

“Silence is not empty or immaterial, and it is not needed to chain tame things. It often guards powers strong enough to shatter everything.” 
~Emmi Itäranta, Memory of Water

The political setting in Memory of Water is highly interesting – it is the West meeting the East. As a political scientist, I was hungry for more details on how the Scandinavian Union came to exist under the New Qian rule. I have to admit, though, that part of the fascinating layer in the novel is precisely the fact that the past of the society is left in the state of mystery and is not revealed. The reader receives glimpses of what might have happened in the old times and what difficulties humans experienced when the system changed.

My favorite part of the novel is the description of the relationship between childhood friends Noria and Sanja. I also loved the portrayal of everyday tasks in their vivid colors and sounds and the climate and weather in the novel. The level of details in the form of gadgets that Sanja is working on is unique.

Tea candles. Photo: Pixabay

I do not wish to spoil your reading experience, so I will not say more about the plot. Do read the book, though, I am not kidding. It is an unlikely dystopian experience. It is science fiction but lacking traditional elements of sci-fi, such as spacecrafts, robots, off-world colonies etc. The novel situates itself in the world between dystopia and post-apocalypse, but as both terms can be interpreted in various ways, the reader has a powerful tool at his or her hands – the imagination.

On the subject of science fiction, stay tuned for a blog post on the boundary between utopia and dystopia. And continue to enjoy August, the last days of summer are at our hands! Let's enjoy them before the dark months and winter strike.

Other novels and stories by Itäranta

  • Finnish Weird (2014), contributor
  • The Weaver (US) / City of Woven Streets (UK) (Kudottujen kujien kaupunki, 2015)
  • Sanasinfonia – novelleja Sibeliuksesta (2015), contributor

More information
– Katherine Farmar: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, published in Strange Horizons on 11 August 2014, link retrieved on 10 August 2017
– Emmi Itäranta: On vaarallista puhua totuudenjälkeisestä ajasta, sillä se palvelee valheista ja propagandasta hyötyviä (in Finnish), published in Helsingin Sanomat on 30 December 2016, link retrieved on 14 August 2017
– Megan M. Mcardle: Must-Read Space Opera by Corey, Itäranta’s Debut of the Month, Epic Lawrence, van Eekhout’s Magic, & More, published the Library Journal Reviews on 17 May 2014, link retrieved on 10 August 2017
– Adam Roberts: Best science fiction books of 2014, published in The Guardian on 5 December 2014, link retrieved on 10 August 2017
– Nancy Hightower: Best science fiction and fantasy in June, published in The Washington Post on 17 June 2014, link retrieved on 10 August 2017

“But water doesn't care for human sorrows. It flows without slowing or quickening its pace in the darkness of the earth, where only stones will hear.”
~Emmi Itäranta, Memory of Water


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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