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Karin Boye – Kallocain

Title: Kallocain
Author: Karin Boye
Year: 1940

Having no ambition to read books in chronological order, most people invariably run across the problem of reading old books and placing them in a modern perspective, instead of the time in which they were originally published. Thus, reading Karin Boye’s Kallocain in 2009, I naturally think “Oh, yet another dystopian novel about a future oppressive state and an individual’s rebellion against the regime”, although it’s of course true that few of the classics in this field had been published at the time (with the notable exception of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which was published in 1932).

This is alright, I read and review books today, not when they were published. This might be unfair to some authors, but mostly to the poor ones. True greatness does not die. and it isn’t overshadowed by later works in the same genre. So, what is Kallocain, then? Is it great or is it overshadowed by other, more notable works by other authors such as Ray Bradbury, George Orwell or Ursula K. Le Guin?

To be honest, I can’t really make up my mind. This story about Leo Kall and how he invents a perfect truth serum called kallocain is different from the others, but it’s still quite familiar. The dystopia has nothing particular to offer that I haven’t read before, so I’m not going to spend much time focusing on that. The heavy focus on Leo’s life and work makes it a bit special, because actual resistance against the regime isn’t really a part of the plot.

The vision isn’t unique and it alone doesn’t make the book worthwhile, but what about the language, then? In general, I find Boye’s Swedish enjoyable, with some really neat words that can only be found in really old science fiction. This doesn’t destroy the vision she creates, but rather enhances it. Perhaps it makes the target seem a little bit farther away, but then again, that’s true; the totalitarian states we see today are quite different from the ones of the 1940s. I don’t mean to say that this book is irrelevant in anyway, but it is decidedly less important today than, say, 1984 or Brave New World.

By way of concluding this review, I’d like to say that I can understand those who praise Boye’s fiction. She is a skilled author and this is a solid piece of writing. Still, it’s no coincidence there are other novels with similar themes that dominate the history of science fiction (disregarding language here; writing in English would have helped). All accounted for, Kallocain is well worth reading, even almost seventy years after it was first published. Not bad.

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  1. Xhakhal’s avatar

    Warning for spoilers in this comment to people who might read it and not have read the book.

    I actually like Kallocain the most of all the books in the category – I found Brave New World pretty boring, and 1984 just wasn’t as great… But then again I think that what I found boring about 1984 was that it had all been done already, and consumed in very many ways – and the fact that the idea was such a big part of the book rather than language (with the exception of new speak, the part where he just sits around and talks with his colleague who’s part of developing new speak was one of my favourites) or storytelling or anything else made it less brilliant than it could have been. I think it’s something of the same problem as I have with Philip K Dick – it’s all been ripped off so much that reading the source just isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be, since the source material’s strength is the idea, not the execution.
    In Kallocain, however, the execution is the best part and I really love Boye’s language (at least in this book – I haven’t read much more by her, only a short little poem my mother likes, one about wishing someone a bad night’s sleep) and how she creates scenes far stronger than those in 1984 (might as well run with the comparison here). Rissen’s speech before his execution, for example, and how Leo in the end just doesn’t know what to do but lay his head in her lap since he can’t really handle trust are both scenes that I think an author like Orwell (or for that matter Huxley) wouldn’t have done very well, but because of how Boye wrote them now are part of the very short list of moments in books that have actually made me sob slightly.

    In short: It’s one of those books that gripped my heart and still holds it. Those books are very few and far between, and so of course some part of why I praise this book is entirely emotional, which is also maybe not so common for me to do… but yeah.
    Also it has a nice pink cover :H


    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      I think you do have a point. Boye feels like an author who wrote a novel that also happened to be dystopian science fiction, wheteas both Huxley and Orwell rely almost entirely on their respective ideas and visions. What I mean is that Boye in a way feel more literary.

      The reason I still like the other two a lot more (just check the ratings) is that they are both experts at delivering what they want to say. Although they did more than half a century ago, their writing still carries a lot of punch. Kallocain is nice to read, but I feel that it’s far from as relevant to us today than are the other two. That of course doesn’t stop it from being a good book. I simply think we focus on different things here.


      1. Xhakhal’s avatar

        I’m actually a bit amused at how Boye and Orwell come to both similar and different conclusions from living in the same age – although when Orwell wrote 1984, the war had ended and that little difference can be seen in the books, I think… but still, they’re written within five years from each other, so I like to make the comparison if nothing else because of that. Another thing that I think is fun is how they use things, different or similar, for the same functions. Not only as literary devices even, and not necessarily meta – for example, they both imagined an advanced surveillance system (to which we today just nod, say ‘of course’ and curse that we’re almost there), but they went about it differently. Boye even made a point about separating the Police Eye with the Police Ear and so on… but now I’m just babbling ^^;