Book Review: 'Amatka,' By Karin TidbeckKarin Tidbeck's new novel is set in the mysterious city of Amatka, an agricultural colony ruled by a totalitarian government — but this is no standard dystopia. In Amatka, language has strange power.
The Nordic speculative-fiction scene has become increasingly prominent in the past few years, with authors such Leena Krohn and Johanna Sinisalo, both from Finland, garnering fresh attention and translations in the United States. In Sweden, one of the most promising authors of science fiction and fantasy in recent years has been Karin Tidbeck.
Her 2012 short story collection, Jagganath, showcased her knack for sharp yet dreamlike tale-spinning. Tidbeck's debut novel Amatka came out the same year, in Swedish only — and it's seeing its first English translation now. Not a moment too soon, either: Despite being originally published five years ago, its surreal vision of deadly conspiracies, political oppression, and curtailed freedom couldn't be more eerily timely.
Amatka takes place in one of the most audacious science-fiction settings since Besźel/Ul Qoma from China Miéville's The City and The City. In Miéville's book, two fictional European city-states are superimposed upon each other, with residents of each forbidden to acknowledge the existence of the other. In Tidbeck's agricultural colony of Amatka, a totalitarian government rules over a deprived and economically depressed population. But this is no run-of-the-mill dystopia. One of Amatka's many repressive rules is the requirement that citizens routinely repeat the names of certain marked objects in the colony. If they don't, those objects will dissolve into what the main character Vanja, calls "gloop" — a formless substance that feels uncannily like living tissue.
The strangeness does not come anywhere close to endingthere. Vanja is from another colony, Essre, and she travels to Amatka for a work assignment — to assess the marketing possibilities there for the hygiene-product company she works for. This world's level of technology is woefully backward, and Vanja struggles to acclimate to Amatka's coldness and remoteness. It's a place of underground mushroom farms and impossible lakes that freeze and thaw of their own volition, a nowhere-land with a gray and featureless sky. The more she settles into life in Amatka, though, the more the colony's oddness intensifies. Objects begin to dissolve at an increasing rate, and conspiracies start to appear — some of them connected to a fomenting rebellion, and some of them regarding the government's apparent cover-up of the true reason behind its draconian laws. Not to mention the reality-melting secret of the gloop.
Tidbeck's premise is almost comical, but her execution is anything but. Amatka teems with mysteries, and almost every innocuous detail — like the fact that the colony's residents are vegan — winds up having head-spinning ramifications later on. As exquisitely constructed as her enigmas are, however, they're atmospheric and deeply moving. Vanja is not an easy character to latch onto, but that sense of distance makes her ultimate choices and sacrifices — and what they say about loneliness and freedom — so much more poignant.
Amatka does not wrap up as conclusively as many readers may like, but then it's nowhere near being a conventional sci-fi novel. Tidbeck triumphs at crafting an ending that's both unsettingly vague and unerringly true to the warped internal logic of her world. Amatka is so disorienting that it makes the otherwise generic elements of her political dystopia — including crippling procedures and secret camps for dissidents — feel almost comfortingly familiar. It's an unnerving trick, and one Tidbeck pulls off to effect: She paints the moral ambiguities of a repressive society in the same gray tones as the sky above Amatka. Most of all, her meditation on the power of names — and how language can be used to control both perception and substance — resonates chillingly in our post-truth reality.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.