Amatka is the debut novel of Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, a concise, elegant exploration of language and creation in the tradition of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin. Tidbeck is the previous winner of the Crawford Award and has also been shortlisted for other honors, including the World Fantasy Award. In her first full length novel she sets up a fantastic secondary world, at once surreal and disturbingly concrete, where words are the seat of power—and Vanja, our protagonist, is at the center of a radical shift in that language.
Vanja has crossed from her colony to another, the titular Amatka, for the purpose of researching hygiene products to best assist her company with the expansion of a private trade market. However, she is drawn in two directions once she arrives: a romantic relationship with her assigned housemate for the stay, Nina, and a prickling awareness that something has gone awry with the structure of Amatka’s colony. As Vanja seeks to tie together the threads of the commune’s cover-ups and manipulations, she stumbles on a far greater forbidden knowledge.
(Some spoilers ahead.)
Tidbeck’s prose is deceptively transparent. Her use of simple and immensely careful diction gives Amatka a lean elegance that builds and builds upon itself, requiring nothing extraneous to encompass its landscape—both emotional and literal. The details of mundane life, marked out with intention as they are by the citizens of the communes, take on a totemic power. Putting on one’s shoes requires the naming of the shoes, lest their reality begin to slither free. In this context, language becomes the literal source and seat of control, of freedom, of power, rather than just the philosophical source.
The dynamic of a culture built around this frangible and endless language is fascinating. Tidbeck does an astounding job of tracing the facts of existence that lead Vanja to be the sort of person who is willing to research gaps on the page, to become a subversive and determine the truth that has been forbidden from her and her fellow citizens. It takes a group to stage this sort of research and foment this sort of rebellion—but it also takes one, and Vanja is that one, though she has believed herself to be quite dull her whole life, or so it seems.
It is also notable that even in this dystopic communal world the romantic relationship between Vanja and Nina is the source of precisely zero conflict or repression. I expected, given the tropes of the genre, that a relationship between women would be forbidden in this social structure; however, it seems to be entirely unremarkable, so long as both women are doing their part to reproduce for the commune—though that is a source of strain for Vanja, who is appalled and disgusted at the requirement to have her body violated in such a fashion.
The relationship structures—Nina and Ivar, whose platonic but longterm bond is the source of a home and a pair of children—are fascinatingly understated. Tidbeck requires the reader to construct their understanding of the social web from factual descriptions: the discouragement of parents from becoming too affectionate with their children, but the commune’s allowance for custodial weekends of those selfsame children; the encouragement of group sleeping and living arrangements to develop interpersonal support but also to prevent dissidence; the allowance of romantic partnerships as social structures that would necessitate some upheaval—after all, Vanja quits her job and moves communes for a sudden romance, and is permitted to do so.
The clever mix of freedom and restriction in this world gives it a depth and taste of realism that much otherwise dystopic fiction lacks. The people of Amatka and the other colonies are able to vote, able to dissent on some measures, able to write poetic tracts and letters and express their passion for one another. There are families and intrigues. However, there is also the force of the commune: non-negotiable job placements such as Ivar’s, the “procedure” through which dissidents are lobotomized to prevent their continued speech, required child bearing, and tight control of publication and the use of language, for example.
The question, however, becomes obvious at the end once Vanja has discovered the truth: that the world her predecessors fled to is entirely shapeable through intention and language, and the restrictions of the communes were set up to prevent wholescale social collapse and catastrophe. The communes are, in their own minds, acting for the greater good. There is no chance of returning to the real or original world; freedom of expression and press in this world allows things like the destruction of colony 5 (where the people imagined a sun so powerfully that it came into being and burned the colony out of existence). The danger is real; however, their solution is an escalation and unsustainable in a free social order.
The poet, Anna, who led one hundred citizens of Amatka off to create a new commune free of restrictions—full of individuals who have become one with the malleable world—returns in the end. The third path is quite clear: to give up safe determination and the hold on the past, the hold on remaining the same, and to become something unknown and unknowable in turn. The citizens of Anna’s commune aren’t humans in the recognizable sense, but they are free. Vanja, as she is betrayed by Nina and undergoes the “procedure” in captivity that gives her aphasia, cannot merge with the language and become one of these fresh creatures—but they know her for their herald and a savior, and will carry her with them as long as she lives.
It’s a powerful, gripping, and slightly miserable ending. There has been a victory, but the ethics of the victory are muddied. Vanja herself has brought about the freedom she desired her whole life, especially since her father’s “procedure,” but is locked out of it. She will remain with Nina, but be unable to communicate with her—and Nina, always-already, is the one who betrayed her to the commune in the first place.
Tidbeck doesn’t offer a simple text in Amatka—or simple answers. The shift in the language, the freedom to become one with the world, is perhaps a staggering improvement over a restricted and stagnant life where each day repeats the last. However, it is also wild and dangerous; Tidbeck has not given us a pat ending, where there is an obvious and direct perfect result. As human existence and language are themselves imperfect, this is natural, and intensely believable. The people of this world have stumbled onto a fresh way of being, a fresh way to render themselves in language and text, and it is frightening, alien, but also wholly new. The path is forward, and poetics will take them along it. It isn’t a simplistic rendering of the powers of language.
Instead, it’s a true rendering: complex, dangerous, and exciting in its unknowable nature.
Amatka is available from Knopf Doubleday.
Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.