Book Reviews: Kallocain (Karin Boye)


There have traditionally been three great or at the very least formative dystopian novels of the 20th century: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 and Evgeny Zamyatin’s We. The first two are almost stereotypically familiar; in my case they were proscribed reading in high school, and few people need them compared or contrasted. We, on the other hand, is nowhere nearly as well-known but every bit as crucial. I discovered it more or less on my own, re-read it time and again as new translations appeared over the years, and would gladly pack a copy on my next one-way trip to the moon. Now I have to add a fourth to this list, one which might well accompany me on that same trip — and which has been sadly neglected even by many other fans of SF or dystopian fiction.

Neither the title, Kallocain, nor the author, Karin Boye, will be familiar to most readers outside of her native Sweden. There from 1922 through 1940 she published several volumes of poetry and a few novels, all well-received by her peers. Kallocain was the most out-of-gamut of her works. Nothing before it hinted that she would produce this bleak future vision, one informed more by the tightening grip of the Third Reich on Europe than by anything in her own life. When her mother complemented her on the book, her response was “Do you really think it was I that did it?” — although it was clearly her book, given the toll it exacted on her emotionally. Less than a year after the great and sad Kallocain saw print, Boye apparently committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and the book itself did not even appear in English until 1966. But we have it now, in a good translation by Gustav Lannestock, and it begs to be rediscovered by an audience for whom dystopia has become a near-synonym for the future that is unfortunately continuing to come true around us.

Kallocain is set in a future of the same drab ugliness as 1984, a “Worldstate” that is one of several equally monolithic and mutually hostile power blocs. Within this state one is either a soldier, a policeman, or an elite — in descending order of likelihood — and all things that do not serve the state or the war effort are suspect. The narrator, Leo Kall, is nominally a scientist but is referred to as “soldier” by his fellow researchers and superiors, and all of his research is likewise directed towards the war in some form. He is convinced his latest piece of work will be a great advancement in that respect: a drug which breaks down inhibitions. It’s the ultimate truth serum, in that it allows people to not only answer any questions put to them but speak truths they never knew they had. The drug, naturally, is named after its creator: kallocain.

Kall is idealistic and naïve, and is only too happy to persuade his superiors and the police to allow him to test the drug on various human volunteers. These are duly supplied, and soon everyone is raising their eyebrows over the drug’s remarkable power to unlock people’s most closely-held secrets. This leads to the idea that kallocain should be used instead of more conventional (and more easily defeated) interrogation methods — and the idea that laws should be passed to make the harboring of treasonous thoughts illegal. What no one, especially not Kall, wants to admit is that treason is not a matter of what one thinks but what one does. What’s more, it is virtually impossible to find someone who has not had such thoughts, no matter what their position in the Worldstate’s power structure.

All of this unfolds against a parallel set of developments in Kall’s own life. He is estranged from his wife and children, for reasons that have nothing to do with the state’s attempts to turn marriages and domestic arrangements into mere soldier-producing systems. Rather, he is convinced his wife had an affair with his supervisor, Rissen, a man as reticent and sadly world-wise as Kall is outwardly determined and positive. “No one over the age of forty can have a clear conscience,” Rissen says at one point early on, words which take on an increasingly bleak resonance for Kall as his work with kallocain shows that to have an unclear conscience and to simply be human are synonyms. Deviance has a way of appearing by itself, whether in the form of a vague directionless yearning or something more concrete. And it is not possible to reconcile an imperfect humanity — of which Kall himself is a specimen — with grim technocratic ideas of human perfectibility. One or the other must give.

The mechanical details of Kallocain’s future society are not as elaborately constructed as, say, the various Ministries of 1984 or the deliberately-constructed social stratifications in Brave New World. The details are generic, kept to the background. Boye’s point was not to show how such a future society worked, since in the end it scarcely mattered: once some apparatus has achieved total power, all that matters from that point on is how they hang onto it, and the details of implementation are largely technical. What she was concerned with more was the minds and hearts of those who find themselves stranded inside such an arrangement, especially those who are still in some form relics of an earlier, less total era.

It’s this element of the book that made it all the scarier and closer to home. Boye might as well have been writing about the kinds of resistance to evil that sprung up within the Nazi state during World War II but only documented for others long afterwards. But the book was written in 1940, long before the majority of such stories were told, and so I have to credit Boye with an artist’s prescience to human conditions within extreme situations. All three other dystopias explored the idea of the malleability of humanity through various means — social conditioning, psychological indoctrination, primordial genetic engineering, etc. — and these were also things Boye herself had witnessed to some degree across Europe and in Russia. Her own Socialist convictions had been dashed by what she had seen in the Soviet Union, and she was disturbed that the only possible future within such a power structure was one where mankind was yet another malleable, mass-produced commodity. What’s more, she was also concerned with how the human heart and mind will still continue to yearn for a true togetherness, even in the middle of a society that insists on its own form of togetherness being the only legitimate kind. Zamyatin touched on some of the same ideas in We, where efforts to do away altogether with that bothersome devil, human imagination, are just getting under way. Zamyatin’s approach was wit and black humor, but Boye’s was via despondency and elegy. In her mind, there was nothing to laugh at, and only too much to weep about.

One thing 1984 has been cited for is the way it depicts the interaction between the torturer and the tortured in a politically absolute state. When O’Brien interrogated Winston Smith in Room 101, Orwell dispensed with the conventional rhetoric of absolute power and simply had absolute power speak for itself, as nakedly as possible. In Kallocain, the torturer is Kall himself — the narrator — and from the first time he injects the drug into a volunteer we can witness the growing split between the ideals he mouths to his superiors and the cynical fascination he feels in his marrow for being able to split open a human being like a piece of fruit. Kall is ultimately captured by another country and forced to labor in their laboratories, and there reflects on how what few convictions he has left have become precisely the kind of thing that he sought to drive out of his victims at all costs.

The best of any fiction refuses to date because it stands outside of any particular timeframe except that of people being people. Brave New World’s technology has dated slightly, but not its view of a world where the best way to oppress people is to make them as comfortable as possible. Kallocain has dated even less: its drug that converts human beings into mere objects of evidence for the prosecution looks more and more like something we’re going to end up inventing one of these days. What’s less clear is whether or not we’ll heed any of Boye’s warnings, since our track record for listening to Zamyatin and Orwell and Huxley has been dismal.


Tags: Aldous Huxley dystopia Evgeny Zamyatin fiction George Orwell Karin Boye review



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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Book Reviews | Books, published on May 18, 2011 10:20 PM.

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