Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka (2017) almost reads as a callback to the experimental and dystopian science fiction of the 1970s: a slim novel, packed with examination of the self as an individual unit within a larger social machine and the cost-benefit analysis thereof, with strange imagery and twisting narrative threads, and no easy answers to be found.
Once, generations back, a group of people mysteriously found themselves in a new place, and were unable to make their way back home. They formed five colonies (though there are now only four) and did the best they could to eke out a strained existence in a strange world which seems barely hospitable enough to support colonies of people who subsist almost entirely on varieties of mushrooms. There is no sunlight, no blue sky, simply a vast unending greyness overhead. Adherence to labels and proper names is of the utmost importance; if an inanimate object loses its label — toothbrush, suitcase, table, etc. — it loses its identity and dissolves into a thick goop that must be immediately removed before it can affect any other objects. Colonists who do not follow guidelines are severely punished for their transgressions, while those who conform are rewarded.
A young information assistant named Vanja travels from Essre, her home colony, to the tundra-like colony of Amatka, on assignment. Her job is to collect information about the personal hygiene needs of Amatka’s citizens and to discern whether people would appreciate products from Essre, though she rapidly discovers that anything new is decidedly unwelcome. As she spends more time in Amatka, becoming acquainted with her housemates and their daily routines, she reveals small details about her personal dissatisfaction with the way things are, and begins to suspect that there is far more going on than anyone would like to admit.
If you’ve read other works of dystopian fiction or are familiar with the genre as a whole, much of what I’ve described above should not come as a surprise. Tidbeck immediately lays bare how this world is different from our own, interspersing Vanja’s narrative with government forms and official reports which outline expected and acceptable behaviors. Tidbeck’s choice to have Vanja travel throughout Amatka as a government agent is a good way to present the colony to the reader and to provide context for the events that follow, but the repeated litanies of skin ailments like eczema, dandruff, and other rashes make the novel feel unbalanced in comparison to the shorter amount of time spent on the climax and dénouement. The first two-thirds of Amatka cover, in great detail, Vanja’s information-gathering during her stay in Amatka, to such a degree that I was confused when Vanja changes tacks and devotes herself whole-heartedly to uncovering the secrets everyone seems so intent on hiding. At the same time, it’s clear that this investigation consumes Vanja’s interest in a way that few other things have before, and her forays into dissident behavior are clever.
Readers who open Amatka with presuppositions about how the novel “should” progress or how it “should” end will be disappointed; the key is to leave one’s mind open, to pay attention to the story as Tidbeck is telling it. Comparisons to forebears like Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood are appropriate, and there are similarities to even Lois Lowry and Emmi Itäranta; Tidbeck, like Itäranta, imbues Amatka with creative ideas along with her Scandinavian background and cultural sensibilities.
We live in exceedingly strange times, and the current publishing market seems to be caught up in a deluge of dystopian fiction that aims to peel back the layers of artifice and expose the nefarious truth that governments don’t always have the best interest of their citizenry at heart. Tidbeck puts some new spins on standards within Amatka, and there are certainly some stand-out moments, but they weren’t enough to fully elevate the work beyond my expectations for what an average dystopian novel should contain.
If I had come across Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka on my shelves, rather than via an ARC sent to my Kindle, I might have thought I’d picked up one of my father’s old books I’ve managed to hang on to over the decades. Say, a late 1960s, early 1970s translation of a Soviet science fiction novel (which he did, in fact, read). Throw in a bit of the Al Pacino movie Insomnia (though minus Robin William’s killer character), and that combo comes pretty close to matching the feel of Tidbeck’s tale. How appealing that comparison will be to readers I have no idea, but I found myself pulled in by Tidbeck’s atmospheric dystopia, even if I couldn’t nail down exactly why.
Tidbeck sets her story on an unnamed planet which had been colonized long ago. There were five colonies originally, but early on we learn that an unexplained catastrophe destroyed one of the colonies. Life in the colonies is a traditional sort of collective dystopia — a trudge of existence on a gray sky, bland food (all of it based off of mushrooms), lots of bureaucracy and dull jobs (many assigned to you), children raised apart from their parents, procreation not so much regulated but strongly obligatory, top-down rulemaking, and an overall sense of oppression and bleakness. The standout detail is the way in which everything in this world needs to be named and marked on a regular basis or they stop “being what they are” and become instead an amorphous gooey substance, something we see happen within the first few chapters when the main character Vanja forgets to name her suitcase, prompting an embarrassing incident and a visit from a biohazard “cleaning” team whose job it is to prevent the spread of un-making.
Vanja has a suitcase because she’s just arrived from the central colony of Essre. She’s been sent by her company to the more-on-the-frontier Amatka to investigate colony’s hygiene practices/needs in order to see if they might purchase products made in Essre instead of just using their own. Amatka is, as noted, is more on the fringes, set out on the tundra at the edge of a large lake that freezes nightly, and this cold, bleak, frozen setting not only adds to the atmosphere of the novel (here’s that Insomnia kinship), but also does a nice job of mirroring the frozen lake of Vanja’s life. She’s a lonely, withdrawn person, so noticeably thus that another character quickly picks up on this, telling her, “you don’t exactly seem like you enjoy being around people. I mean, this whole thing of making small talk and being friendly.” That character is Nina, who shares the house Vanja is staying at with mushroom-farmer Ivar (the laconic father of Nina’s children) and retired doctor Ulla, the classic sharp-tongued/sharp-minded old lady who says what she thinks and damn the reactions.
Mysteries abound in Amatka: what has happened in Vanja’s past to make her the person she is, what was the catastrophe that wiped out the fifth colony, why do objects in this world un-become and can they re-become (what they were or something else), what does Ulla know and why isn’t she telling, what happened a few years back that caused the colony to lose over a hundred inhabitants, why is the central committee becoming so stingy about the world’s stockpile of “real paper,” is the tundra/this planet really as empty as the colonists are all told it is, who made those pre-existing weird-looking structures the original colonists came across, and a few more that I won’t mention so as to avoid spoilers.
The raising of questions and the unspooling of answers (or quasi-answers) is deftly handled, as is Vanja’s growing determination to get to the bottom of things, despite the constant background social pressure of conformity, the more tangible fear of arrest, and the more personal conflict that Nina, with whom Vanja falls into a tenderly depicted romance, is adamant that one needn’t speak of such things or ask such questions (and certainly never try to find answers). Why Nina is like that is yet another mystery. Nina’s staunch “don’t go there” attitude is counterbalanced by Ulla’s clear subversive bent, a stance shared, though far less loudly, by the local librarian. I can’t say the mysteries themselves are particularly compelling, but something about the pacing, Tidbeck’s stark, simply-on-its surface prose, and the general atmospheric nature of the work pulled me along, or perhaps “lulled” me along would be a more accurate description.
Amatka is relatively slim, at least compared to most of my sci-fi/fantasy reading, and thanks to the repressive nature of the society and the characters themselves, who are often tersely to the point, there’s a sense of distance between reader and character. But that isn’t to say the characters are not fully three-dimensional, complex creations. They are that, and despite not having a lot of pages or words, one gets a good sense of individual personalities, their fears and motivations (though not always right away). I wouldn’t call them vivid, but more efficiently detailed in their domestic humanity.
Conceptually, the book raises some big questions. The most obvious ones, thanks to the naming/marking rituals, has to do with the power of language and the communal nature of reality. At first, it seems that language is a defense, but if one can keep something what it “is” by naming it, that begs the question, can one then make it something it is not? Or make something new? And is that sort of freedom/power of imagination something to be reveled in or feared and so controlled (it’s probably not coincidence that the best known dissenter is a poet)? Does one have the right to not play by society’s agreed-upon rules if by doing so one threatens not just the society’s structures but people’s actual existence? And what sort of existence is it anyway — where does that sliding scale or inverse relationship between the quality of the lives lived versus the willingness to break the society leave us? Another question is does it make sense to be bound by tradition/history in a new world/era (a literal new world in the book’s case, but our own world is regularly recreated — the 21st century is not the 20th or the 17th)? Does a rigid adherence to keeping things as they are keep us safe or limit us?
Amatka is a tough book for me to recommend. I can see lots of people not caring much for it — finding the dystopic elements too familiar and, conversely, the more original aspects too weird and vague; finding the prose too simple and straightforward, finding the characters not particularly engaging. But while I can totally get those responses, for me there was just something about the bleak empty setting combined with the distant but oddly interesting main character and a host of even more interesting questions regarding language, identity, reality, and society, that I’d say pick it up and give it a few chapters (definitely a few chapters as the book spends, I’d say, a little too much time on the hygiene details early on, which as Jana notes causes some balance issues) and see if it grows on you like it did on me.
Okay, I have to order this one today!
I’m curious to know what you think of it! I think I’ve just read too much dystopian fiction (and/or the news) for this to really stand out for me, personally.
I have the audiobook loaded on my phone and was planning to read it next, but since you covered it, I’ll wait.
I’m always eager to hear other perspectives, but please don’t feel as though you have to rush!
Bill, I thought Nina’s reticence to discuss certain things was clearly explained toward the end of the book.
I want to ask you both about the “goop,” and the planet/dimension itself w/o committing spoilers… is it a clue that the colonists found no large lifeforms that they recognized as such, when they first arrived… and that the goop is warm?
Yes, Nina’s attitude is explained–sorry, didn’t mean to imply it was an unresolved mystery. As for the question, it’d be an interesting off-page discussion (so as to avoid spoilers). I do think those are “clues,” but I’m not sure how narrowly we’re meant to read them (if I’m understanding your question correctly)
I liked this book better than either of you. I actually picked it up after reading Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call and figuring, “OK, grim communistic dystopia on a colony planet, this should be less wild and wooly!” Wrong! This was one of the creepiest books I’ve read in a long time, especially the farther you get into it. When it came out that they know they came to this world from somewhere else but have no idea how (or how to go back), things got more and more weird, and the absence of tech like spaceships, interdimensional portals, and the other usual suspects became very significant.
The closest comparison I can think of for this would be a Twilight Zone episode, but Sherri Tepper’s Grass also came to mind (for a similar level of creepiness), with maybe a dash of The Lathe of Heaven and an older vintage Dean Koontz SF suspense novel. The characters were just real enough to be engaging and I liked that Tidbeck stuck to her premise all the way to the end.