Maybe it’s the uncertainty of our age and our ambivalence about technology -the way it both eases and controls our lives- but dystopian fiction seems to be very in vogue right now.
I just finished a dark and chilly example of the genre, Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, which was published in Sweden four years ago and has just been translated into English by its author. It is an entertaining and provocative look at the importance of words and how language can shape reality.
The story takes place in a rather threadbare “empire” that consists of four town-sized colonies. (There used to be five but one self-destructed.) The colonies are all tightly controlled by an authoritarian “committee” reminiscent of Stalinist or Maoist regimes.
The reason the authorities give for this strict control is the quite literal instability of the colonies. Every object has to be constantly labelled – “pencil”, “door”, “suitcase”, “factory” – and its name constantly spoken aloud – “pencil”, “door”, “suitcase”, “factory” – or else it will melt into a mysterious slimy gloop.
Using the wrong word can be dangerous. This means that the vocabulary is pared down to basics, stripped of metaphor or allusion. The secret that the regime is hiding, however, is that words can also be used to create things that don’t already exist, including freedom, a secret that some rebels (led by a poet, naturally) have begun to figure out. Punishment for subversive behaviour is having the speech centre in your brain destroyed.
The novel’s heroine is Vanja, who has been dispatched from the capitol to the frigid, sunless colony of Amatka to report on the colonists’ needs for hygiene products. Life in Amatka is dull and depressing. (Their motto is “As morning comes we see and say: today’s the same as yesterday.”) Spurred by curiosity Vanja soon teams up with Evgen, a subversive librarian, to search out the colony’s secrets.
The book is speculative fiction to be sure but it’s also a kind of mystery novel as Vanja and Evgen follow a string of clues. This lets Tidbeck slowly dole out information that helps the reader make sense of Amatka, although some things, such as where the original settlers of the empire came from, are left unanswered.
In contrast to the colonists restricted vocabulary, Tidbeck’s writing is elegant and atmospheric. I really enjoyed the book, despite its rather bleak elements.