Fair game

Issue 4/1996 | Archives online, Authors

“In today’s world, the car is a male
 environment, a tool with which he
 controls the world,’ commented Heimo
 Susi (born 1933) in a recent interview 
in Helsingin Sanomat in connection with 
his first novel Virkamatka (‘Business 
travel’, Otava, 1996).
’And then the car sort of breaks down at 
the end of the book.’

The action of Susi’s novel takes place 
for the most part in a brand-new Opel
 Vectra; at the end of the book, the car is 
in collision with an elk. In traditional 
Finnish style, nature is always stronger 
than humankind, technology and 
civilisation. The book is a mischievous
 account of a department head in the
 ministry of labour on a wild-goose chase up and down the country: he sits 
in meetings, lectures in employment 
bureaus and shows on the overhead
 projector diagrams wittily illustrated by 
his daughter.

The man’s mission in life is to repel 
the suggestions of the minister’s work
ing group for organisational renewal,
 because they threaten his own job. His 
attempt fails, and the office chief is
 faced with salaried redundancy or early 
retirement. The tragic hero sees his
 efforts coming to nothing.

Arguing for the necessity of spiritual 
health and safety at work, the offic e
chief stubbornly claims that Finland is, 
in international terms, the leading
 country in this matter, although the
 reader is never told what spiritual
 health and safety at work means in
 practice. But the Geneva Conference is 
a mantra that generally silences Finns’
objections.

But Susi’s Virkamatka is not merely a
 satire about alienated civil servants: it is
 a mad vision of the future, the first
 quality novel l have read about compu
ter games. Susi imagines how techno
logy will change the world, right down 
to sexual practices. The civil servant and 
his wife decide to enliven their silver
 wedding celebration with a virtual
 adventure. The technician gives them
 diving suits, and regulates the sensitiv
ity of their fingertips, lips and sexual 
organs. On offer to the civil servant is 
the classical role of satyr, with little
 horns and pointed ears, and the hooves 
of a goat. And, of course, a lustful
 expression. The nymph’s sexual organs react sensitively to the satyr’s flute-
playing. The strength of impulses is
 regulated by pressing the palm of the 
hand until the nymph – the civil
 servant’s psychoanalyst wife – flounders 
in her desire like a fish.

So unrestrained is Susi’s invective 
that the book will make cautionary
 reading for admirers of the new tech
nology. But Susi also sees a nugget of 
hope. Computers offer salvation, at 
least, from enervating everyday life,
 now that daydreams no longer have a 
place in the real world of bureaucracy. 
People need technology to support their 
imaginations. Except for Susi. In Susi’s
 case it must be said that his imagination 
needs no such support.

On his journey, the civil servant
 stops from time to time to tap away on 
his lap-top. The reader is left to work 
out what the man is really doing: is he 
writing notes on spiritual health and 
safety, or playing computer games?

In computer games, even the civil
 servant is god, and not merely a middle-
aged man who has lost control of his 
life, just as the grand narratives about
 the rationality of reality have crumbled.
 Even if the player were to collide with
 an elk on screen, he always has nine 
lives left. In his descriptions of computer
 games, Susi mocks everything between 
heaven and earth: the natural sciences,
 New Age philosophy, Christianity. He
 makes mischief of the entire history of 
civilisation. Buddha, Jesus, Freud and 
the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner are
 all failed experiments in the evolution-ary game.

The climax of Susi’s irony lies in the
 fact that Steiner, with his spiritual 
theories, comes closer to the truth.
’There is no need for sense-perception,
the imaginable is enough,’ Steiner thought. ‘In other words, everything 
that can be imagined exists.’ In the
 world of computers and television this
 is the only possible truth. In the information society, then, Steiner’s theorie
s should be hot stuff.

As we read the novel, our own lives
 begin to seem like a computer game 
which someone else is playing above 
our heads, although we live here and
 make our choices. Or at least, we think 
we do. People are as mechanical crea
tures as the actors in the game. Actions
 which we see as rational are as absurd 
as the game itself.

And as soon as the short-sighted
 father grows tired of the creatures that
 scuttle across the screen, he pulls the
 plug on them. The end of the world
 begins to loom large.

The characters in the novel do not
 have the means to defy the writer, but
 can we defy the new technology, or 
God, who loves the games he has
 invented?

Can we somehow quit the game,
 even by mocking God? Or must it always be played to the end?

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