The Woman Who Reimagined the Dystopian Novel

In E. M. Forster’s dystopian story “The Machine Stops,” published in 1909, the inhabitants of an underground society live siloed, dehumanized lives: they are convinced that the Earth’s surface is uninhabitable, and that to find interest in nature or seek out new experiences is madness. At the story’s end, the society collapses, and a fissure opens to the air above, offering a glimpse of “the untainted sky”—proof that the outside world they had been instructed to avoid was both accessible and beautiful. The story touched on a truth that would prove foundational to twentieth-century dystopian fiction: that wonder could be as destabilizing a force in society as it is in an individual soul.

In the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We” (1924), which established many of the conventions of contemporary dystopian fiction, an authoritarian city-state is destabilized when rebels blow up its surrounding wall. Birds—previously unseen within the city—flock in, and chaos ensues. The state is shaken, perhaps undone, by the suggestion that a richer, more complex life might be found outside its walls. In the years following the First World War, Zamyatin was not alone in considering how, as fears of large-scale industrialization and militarism took hold, contact with the natural world—a realm with no surveillance, no propaganda, and no rules—might serve as a catalyst to rebellion. Aldous Huxley used the same device in his 1932 novel, “Brave New World.” That novel’s protagonist, raised on the outskirts of society, finds coldly scientific “civilization” horrifying. His naïve delight in nature threatens authorities. “Primroses and landscapes,” one official laments early in the novel, “have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy.”

The world of the Swedish writer Karin Boye’s little-known 1940 novel, “Kallocain,” is a close cousin to those depicted in “We” and “Brave New World.” Like Zamyatin’s and Huxley’s dystopias, Boye’s underground World State is a centralized authoritarian society whose inhabitants’ lives are tightly controlled. And, as in these earlier novels, Boye’s closed state is destabilized by the experience of awe. That wonder, however, is sparked by a contact not with the unpredictable and ungovernable external world but with the equally unpredictable and ungovernable reality of human experience—and, specifically, female experience. The women characters in many classic twentieth-century dystopias tend to be flat, mere foils to male protagonists. But in “Kallocain” it is the inner lives of women that come to illustrate both the state’s power over its citizens and their own power to resist.

Boye was born in Sweden in 1900 and lived a daring life. After undergoing psychoanalysis, she left her marriage to a man to form a lifelong partnership with a woman. She was a socialist activist in her youth, but a 1928 visit to the Soviet Union stripped away much of her idealism about the Stalinist state. She saw in the rise of Nazism and Fascism a terrifying confirmation of her belief that, as she wrote to a colleague in 1940, “the values we possess—between one another—are the most precious of all and the most easily lost.” During her lifetime, she was best known for her spiritual, inward-looking poetry, but she also wrote several novels interested in the ways in which individuals relate to and seek to cast off social norms.

In “Kallocain,” now reissued in a new English translation, Boye imagines a society built almost entirely underground. (Its citizens are told that parts of the Earth’s surface are uninhabitable.) Their subterranean nation, the World State—the same name Huxley gave his authoritarian superpower—is a crisply organized apparatus in which each inhabitant’s city of residence is determined by his or her profession. Children leave home for full-time training as model citizens and soldiers at age seven. The radio features a regular apology hour in which those who have violated propaganda requirements make scrupulous amends. Most evenings are occupied by mandatory police and military service, and marital bedrooms come equipped with a “police eye” and “police ear.” Any desire for life to include more is criminalized. The state uses Kallocain, a powerful truth serum, to monitor its inhabitants. Even the most outwardly compliant citizen can be revealed to have a wandering mind, and face punishment for it.

Like all dystopias, Boye’s was a reflection of the world she occupied. When she began writing “Kallocain,” in the late nineteen-thirties, the sometimes allied, sometimes opposed forces of Stalinism and European Fascism had raised the terrifying possibility of a global state that systematically isolated its inhabitants and demanded soul-deep loyalty from them. Even countries such as Sweden, which tried to resist those forces, in some ways came to mimic them. In the context of the Second World War, the government censored material that might attract Germany’s attention. As David McDuff, the new translator of “Kallocain,” writes in his introduction to the novel, “Ordinary Swedish citizens had to be careful whom they talked to and what they talked about—even what books they bought and read.”

At the novel’s start, Leo Kall, the inventor of the titular truth serum, is a belligerent proponent of the supremacy of the state and the relative meaninglessness of the individual. “A wholehearted warrior,” he tells himself, “is more effective than an ambivalent one.” In an elaborate test of the drug’s effectiveness, Kall directs volunteers, who are married, to tell their spouses that they’ve been asked to commit treason—a disclosure that their partners should report to the state. Only one spouse, a “young, frail and slightly haggard little woman,” fails to denounce her husband. Kall doses her with truth serum. As the drug takes effect, the woman, previously so frightened she seemed “close to fainting,” transforms. Smiling and confident, she shares the treasonous secret her husband told her almost dismissively. What she wants to talk about is the glow of love and pride she feels in him for confessing something so dangerous to her. “It’s the pride of my life that he dared, and I shall be grateful all my life,” she says. “With him, I have nothing to fear. He was not afraid of me.”

The woman’s trust in her husband is tragically misplaced: as the reader knows, he was privy to the trial, and the secret she believed he had shared with her was a lie. Told that she has been involved in an experiment—betrayed by her husband, just when she thought he had shown her trust—she becomes “closed and rigid like a dead thing.” The scene is a shockingly concise version of an arc that dominated “We” and “Brave New World”: love springs forth, presents a vision of a changed future, and is crushed by the state, which understands that any kind of meaningful inner life is a threat to its aspirations toward total power.

But the profoundly cruel exercise has unexpected consequences. The woman’s vulnerability and emotional depth arouse a “violent compassion” in Kall. And the unexpected purity of her love for her husband pushes him to examine a truth he is reluctant to admit: in his own interior life, Kall is split between loyalty to the state and a set of complex, almost uncontrollable desires which contravene that loyalty. He yearns for a true connection with his wife, Linda, and obsessively envies his superior, Rissen, whom he suspects Linda might love.

Tortured by jealousy, Kall decides to force the truth from Linda. He steals a dose of Kallocain from his lab—a crime, and an indication of the desperation to which his inability to understand himself has driven him—and injects her with it. To insure her submission, he gags her in her sleep and ties her up.

The act, which both Kall and Linda understand to be violent, is a betrayal of trust. (“You have broken me open like a tin can, by force,” she tells him.) But, since Kall has intruded on her inner life, Linda is determined to show him as much of it as she can, on her terms. The result is an astonishing monologue about childbirth and motherhood. Those experiences changed her, she says, from a “loyal fellow soldier” to a “selfish, grasping female creature, one that gave birth for herself and thought she had a right to what she gave birth to.” That feeling of having a personal right to anything—of having a self with desires that overwhelmed and undermined her loyalty to the state—spurred an awakening, a sense of wonder at her body and soul akin to the wonder at natural forces experienced by the heroes of “We” and “Brave New World.”

She hadn’t felt such individuality since early childhood, she tells Kall. As she marvelled at her son’s nascent personhood, she began to recognize “a number of comical traits” that reminded her of those she’d had at his age. When her second child, a girl, was born, Linda discovered that her daughter “had a melody of her own”—a realization that made her “light-headed. She began to dread her children becoming dehumanized by state training. Children, she insists, are not a “shapeless lump of clay that you or I or the State simply had to mould” but individuals in their own right.

Boye was not the only writer of her time to be interested by the idea that authoritarian states might draw their power in part from the suppression of women. Huxley opened “Brave New World” with a tour of the facilities built by his World State to incubate babies outside the womb, in which the majority of female babies are forcibly sterilized. “To say one was a mother—that was past a joke,” Huxley wrote. “It was an obscenity.” (Huxley also named a central female character whose life was radically changed by the experience of motherhood Linda.) In 1937, the British writer Katharine Burdekin, using the pen name Murray Constantine, published the terrifyingly titled “Swastika Night,” in which a continuation of the Nazi regime, some seven hundred years after the start of the Second World War, operates as, in the words of the scholar Daphne Patai, “a cult of masculinity.” Women are imprisoned and effectively used as reproductive machines, with no freedom to make choices about if, when, or with whom they have children.

What might a cult of masculinity find worth fearing about women? Boye’s answer is clear: the disruptive female characters of “Kallocain” have a capacity for an inward-looking awe. Linda’s sense of wonder is provoked first by the miracle of her “grasping” body, and then by the way she comes to see her children not as tools of the state but as creatures with their own unpredictable identities. The knowledge that she gave birth to those creatures—that their identities first blossomed within her—changes her perspective on existence. “What was I, then?” she asks. “Someone who had no control over what happened—and yet exalted almost to the point of ecstasy because it had to happen through me.”

Kall is dumbstruck; Linda’s confession ignites an urge “to break everything and make everything new.” Linda dreams of a different world, populated by others “who have begun to understand what it means to give birth”: fathers, lovers, anyone who knows what it is to sense something unexpected growing within themselves, even if that growth is only a feeling, or an idea. They, too, are “mothers—whether they are men or women.” But the dream is short-lived: this is the last conversation Kall and Linda will ever have. The next day, Linda leaves for work, and doesn’t come home. Shortly after, Kall is seized by soldiers from a neighboring authoritarian state and condemned to a lonely existence producing Kallocain.

It isn’t a happy ending. But it carries a note of hope. Kall avoids despair by nurturing a belief that Linda has survived against the odds. Their connection has made him understand how uncontrollable the effects of his invention are. He now sees the drug he created in service of the state as a way of subverting it: if he keeps making Kallocain, a “new Linda” might arise somewhere in the world.

Dystopias weaponize what they fear. The World State of “Kallocain” fears truth, and therefore weaponizes truth. It fears familial bonds, so it weaponizes them, too. In her description of that process, Boye articulates a deceptively simple idea: when the state creates a weapon that requires human coöperation, it opens the door to that weapon being used against it. The awakening that makes her character rebel does not arise from any special access or insight. It can be set off by pregnancy, as it is for Linda, or by a perceived gesture of love, as it is for Kall’s brave test subject. It can be sparked, as it is for Kall, by the sight of someone else’s unexpectedly vast internal landscape. As long as we retain the ability to experience the unexpected—and generate it—there is an untainted sky waiting to be found within. And that fact, Boye reminds us, is its own weapon. ♦

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