OCTOBER 14, 2017
NOW IS THE TIME for dystopia, and Swedish author Karin Tidbeck offers a surrealist, distinctly European addition to the genre with her debut novel, Amatka. The novel is based on a now-common science fictional premise in the age of climate crisis: when Earth becomes unlivable for reasons not fully explained, some find a way to escape and settle on a hostile alien planet. From this basic premise, Tidbeck launches a unique narrative that unsettles the social structures and ideologies underpinning European democratic socialism, in particular liberal humanism.
The setting is the city of Amatka, one of four cities in a colony, connected tenuously to the others by dangerous train routes through an alien landscape. Its economy is agriculturally based, a sort of country backwater in comparison to the city of Essre, from which Vanja, the main character, comes on a business trip. Her mission is ostensibly to infuse a regulated but distinctly capitalist-spirited competition into a tightly restricted, scarcity-plagued economy. Restriction is rampant in social life; the principles of communist egalitarianism on which the colony was founded have been whittled away in the name of societal survival, such that at first the novel appears as a straightforward critique of communism, one more appropriate to the Cold War era. But while an element of such a critique may be present, Amatka is not reducible to this; rather, its commitment to several artistic and generic traditions with a long history of nuanced political engagement makes it a fascinating read.
In many ways, Amatka is a novel out of time and place. This is, with one major exception, deliberate, as the novel participates in the utopian/dystopian tradition that such societies exist in “no-place.” Time and place become distorted in large part because of Tidbeck’s commitment to the principles of Surrealism, the early 20th-century artistic movement that took everyday objects and depicted them in illogical ways in an attempt to better understand the unconscious and express various left-revolutionary ideologies. In a clear nod to Dalí, inanimate objects that are mislabeled literally melt into gloop. But what is the gloop made of? Is it sentient? Part of the alien earth? Here and elsewhere, Tidbeck is deliberately enigmatic. Surrealism is meant to unsettle, making the novel at home with the kinds of cognitive estrangement so vital to speculative fiction. Rather than the more contemporary light-touch of surrealism found elsewhere in SF, surreal events drive the plot of the novel, first as strange pipes begin appearing, and then even stranger objects pepper the novel’s climax, which takes a turn to a sort of sublime horror when formerly missing colonists return as monsters.
Advance reviews categorize Amatka as feminist science fiction, invoking Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood. While this is true, it doesn’t fully capture the novel’s strengths. Northern European politics are brought to the fore from a feminist perspective: women of the colony are expected to bear children — and forced if they do not do so willingly — in order to combat the colonies’ declining birth rate. This applies even to lesbians, who resort to turkey basters for the act. Vanja argues that children shouldn’t be brought into such an ailing society, and she articulates a criticism of the rhetoric of Europe’s declining birth rates in the process. How long before social pressures and incentives to reproduce become obligations?
Tidbeck’s concern with how language shapes social reality productively compares with Le Guin’s work, especially The Dispossessed, reviving the linguistic debates that Le Guin ignited in feminist SF in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as the concept of permanent revolution to avoid stagnation in anti-authoritarian communist societies. In Amatka, to allow an object to melt into gloop is to commit an affront to the community, and children are taught early how precarious their reality is, to label and re-label all inanimate objects regularly. To the question of the ways language restricts individual consciousness, and therefore interactions, and the fabric of the social body, the labeling process can be read as a metaphor for the intense psychological efforts expended in convincing oneself that the framework of an oppressive society is the only way to survive. Language confines thought, but the psyche can break free of it with effort. The surreal — the indescribable — offers the promise that rational language and the too-perfect ordering of society can be breached.
However, Amatka is not reducible to any one subgenre, as Tidbeck draws on several rich traditions of SF. Its surrealist and psychological-thriller elements also put it in line with Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, especially given that Lem was concerned with communication beyond the bounds of the human or obviously living organisms. There are additional elements aligned with the dystopia-as-fascism of 1984, elements that might initially grab readers outside Europe.
There is a lot to unpack in this novel, and it will surely be enticing to those of an academic bent. Even from this side of the Atlantic, it is clear that Tidbeck is taking the crippling bureaucracy of European socialism to task, and she is doing so — as is hinted if not outright stated — from a position to its left, one that does not reduce freedom to that of economic pursuit as one could expect from a more conservative critique. Vanja after all abandons her market-expanding project when she realizes its irrelevance to Amatka’s downtrodden workers. Amatka then could productively be read alongside Mark Fisher’s work, in particular his work on hauntology and lost futures, and his final book, The Weird and the Eerie. Tidbeck incorporates elements of both the weird — what Fisher describes as an object from the “outside” of the familiar intruding upon the inside, as with the pipes that begin to appear in the town, and the eerie — defined in part as “landscapes partially emptied of the human,” as we see in Vanja’s many treks outside the city. For Fisher, the concepts are politically useful when engaging with questions of agency in the era of capitalism, and clearly Tidbeck is making an intervention along these lines. What becomes of human agency when liberal humanism attempts to ameliorate the ills of capitalism under democratic socialism and fails?
As a sort of dark feminist satire that questions fundamental relations of power in Europe, we might also compare Amatka to a now relatively obscure work of Norwegian SF, Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes (1977). Flipping gendered power relations on their head — “wim” run society while “menwim” perform the unpaid labor of social reproduction — Egalia’s Daughters questioned in the early days of democratic socialism whether women simply attaining equality in European society would end oppression. Similarly, Amatka asks if democratic socialism has succeeded in the creation of a free society, holding a distorted and surrealistic mirror to its bureaucracy and perceived decline in the age of neoliberal capitalism. In both novels, the reader feels trapped in society along with the narrator. However, Amatka ends more hopefully, with an abandonment of not only social structure but a surreal abandonment of what it means to be human for the sake of survival, an unsustainable concept on an alien planet — perhaps a nod to abandoning liberal humanism itself in favor of some as-yet-unknown, more liberatory politics.
Amatka is an idea-driven novel, not a character-driven one, and as such this novel may not end up on any best seller lists. Characters are generally quite flat, even when they are falling in love with each other — romantic feelings ring hollow from within a society where no one can be trusted, everyone is depressed, and language must be chosen carefully to avoid serious physical and social consequences brought on by paranoid social oversight committees. That said, Amatka is incredibly sophisticated as a debut. Perhaps this is due in part to the mentors Tidbeck mentions in her acknowledgments, among them masters of the weird, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. But Tidbeck’s commitment to ideas at the expense of plot and a sense of vibrant adventurousness would arguably separate her from other contemporary authors of the weird. Colors are drab; one imagines Tidbeck’s characters in much the same way US audiences are taught to imagine Soviet Russia.
There is another way, however, that the novel is out of time and place that is problematic rather than refreshing. This book is decidedly European; in an age of so much science fiction that addresses head-on issues of race and colonialism — issues that today cannot be ignored when thinking about a better world or understanding the ills of the current world — such topics are largely absent. However, they can be read into the novel to a degree, considering that the “pioneers” of the novel seem to be failing at their attempt to colonize the planet because they are not trying to understand their place in it, but rather to continue on with European socialism as a societal model.
Yet in a time where our own social reality seems increasingly incomprehensible in the cacophony of posthuman technologies, when our responsibilities to the words we use become increasingly untethered from standards of human compassion (where freedom of speech is the rallying cry and justification for speaking words that harm), and as dystopia and/or climate apocalypse creeps ever closer — in this sense, Amatka firmly belongs in the present time and place. Europeans and those of European descent need to engage with and sit uncomfortably in the knowledge of their monstrous humanity; this is certainly a novel for such engagements.