On April 25, 2016, organizers of MidAmericon II/The 74th World Science Fiction Convention announced the finalists for this year’s Hugo Awards, one of the most prestigious accolades in the global science fiction community.

Also announced were the finalists for the 1941 Retro Hugo Awards which will honor works that should have been recognized in 1941 but weren’t, because the events of World War II made a meeting of the World Science Fiction Convention impossible.

What’s old is definitely new again. One of the 76-year-old works that now is a finalist for the 1941 Retro Hugo for Best Novel is every bit as relevant today as it was when published in 1940.

Anyone who is interested in the literature of liberty should read Swedish author Karin Boye’s Kallocain.

Enter Karin Boye’s Nightmare

Boye (1900-1941) wrote Kallocain as totalitarian state battled totalitarian state during World War II. Readers can read a Swedish fear of Nazi invasion in between the lines, but the novel also clearly reflects the disillusionment Boye felt—as someone who once had considered herself a socialist—with the suffocating oppression of the Soviet Union.

In the world Boye extrapolates from her own time and projects into Kallocain, the individual cannot survive. The novel is all the more powerful and poignant when one realizes that the author committed suicide shortly after its publication.

In Boye’s novel, citizens are equal, it’s true, but only in so far as they are equal cogs in the machine of the repressive, male-dominated Worldstate. Leo Kall starts out as a scientist and a true believer. In a society defined by distrust and suspicion, he knows that surveillance is all important; therefore, Kall plans to prove his worth to the Worldstate by revolutionizing the way the government can spy on its people. He develops Kallocain, a truth serum that exposes the private thoughts of all “fellow-soldiers,” thus paving the way for the Worldstate to make sure that either each person becomes a “happy, healthy cell in the state organism,” or he/she is eliminated.

The choice is that simple: be regulated and controlled—or die.

At the beginning, Kall doesn’t see his drug as a violation of others’ privacy. As a good citizen, he is convinced that each person (including his or her thoughts) belong to the government: “from thoughts and feelings, words and actions are born. How then could these thoughts and feelings belong to the individual? Doesn’t the whole fellow-soldier belong to the state? To whom should his thoughts and feelings belong then, if not to the state?”

Kall expects his discovery will be his triumph, his great gift for the common good. Instead, as citizens helplessly spill their innermost secrets under the influence of Kallocain, Kall discovers how truly miserable and empty his comrades are without any sense of the personal, and how many yearn for something more than simply being a dutiful cell in the body of the state.

In short, Kall’s great invention proves to be the instrument of his thorough disenchantment with the government. Boye describes Kall’s awakening as an individual in the most believable of terms, and in so doing she creates a powerful indictment of collectivist thought.

Readers familiar with other  masterpieces of early 20th- century dystopian science fiction such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) will find that Kallocain offers a powerful and complementary voice in that dialogue. Most impressive is the way in which Boye anticipates Orwell in her depictions of the debilitating and dehumanizing effects of fear and constant surveillance.

Given that in our current reality we expect that our phone conversations are recorded and our email messages scrutinized, and that Transportation Security Administration employees are studying our expressions with the intention of divining our thoughts as we wait in line at the airport to be x-rayed and patted down, Kallocain couldn’t be a more timely – or unsettling – read.

Notes:

  • The University of Wisconsin Press offers an English edition of Kallocain online translated by Gustaf Lannestock (which is the version quoted above).
  • The Retro Hugo Awards will be presented during WorldCon (August 17-21, 2016) in Kansas City, Missouri during WorldCon (August 17-21, 2016).

Want more to explore? Check out the resources below.

Podcast Segments:

  • Amy H. Sturgis, “Novels Eligible for the 1941 Retro Hugo Awards,” StarShipSofa podcast (February and March 2016): Part 1 and Part 2.

Essay:

Novel:

  • Kallocain by Karin Boye, translated by Gustaf Lannestock. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1966