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Karin Boye

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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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