Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka and the Use of Language in Dystopian Science Fiction

I have a complicated relationship with Nineteen Eighty-Four. To this day, it remains the only book that has ever bored so deeply into my head that I could not bring myself to finish it. This, after multiple attempts, spread across nearly 20 years of a life lived happily in the stacks of libraries and bookstores.

I think about George Orwell’s novel more days than not. Sometimes I think that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the book that truly made me fall in love with language. Newspeak, the propagandic language created by the Party to limit expression and thought, permeates my own thoughts, which mentally—and hyperbolically—declare inconvenient situations as “doubleplusungood.”

And yet, my life and livelihood are, for the most part, far removed from the anxiety on which the fiction of Orwell and other postwar writers honed in. The end of World War II left Western writers fearing the loss of their freedoms of speech and the press. Those fears manifested in their dystopian science fiction as verbal censorship imposed on the populace by a menacing government.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is the most prominent example of this, by far, but the strict, legal regulation of language pops up in various science fiction novels and stories that follow Orwell’s. Inhabitants of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Green-sky have no means of expressing the negative emotions they feel, and are treated as social pariahs for being “unjoyful.” Ascians in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun do not understand any sentence constructions that do not appear in their government-issued manuals on “Correct Thought.” Lois Lowry’s The Giver portrays a society whose emotional range has been stunted by its insistence on “precise speech.”

First published in Sweden in 2012, Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka offers up a new, much more material take on language restriction—a world in which every object, from a chair to a pot of face cream, must be verbally told what it is and visibly labeled as such. In this world, a single, malleable, farmable substance—very much like the eponymous Stuff of Eighties horror fame—makes up every inanimate commodity. This substance poses an immediate threat to humanity if it is allowed to move beyond the linguistic restrictions that its manufacturers and consumers have placed upon it. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Giver, Amatka has Soviet flair, both in the names given to its citizens and colonies, and in the requisite censorship of historical information, which extends even to the unmaking of people. However, this censorship serves largely to cover up the novel’s central mystery—what the “mushrooms” that make up Tidbeck’s created world really are.

[Spoilers ahead for Amatka.]

Early in the novel, protagonist Vanja compels her suitcase to maintain its shape by telling it what it is as she walks to her new apartment. Once settled, she realizes that her toothbrush has become unmade in her toiletry bag, leaving “[t]he bottom of the bag … coated in a thick paste.” In both cases, the labels “marking” Vanja’s belongings as specific items have been partially worn away, leading to the dissolution of the object into shapeless matter.

Marking is the means by which the residents of Tidbeck’s created world control the gloop, farmed in Amatka, which they refine into varying shapes and functions. Children are taught to do this from an early age, through a memorized rhyme. Letting things disintegrate into their dangerous, unformed state is the height of childish irresponsibility. Between the “Marking Song” and the emphasis on scrapping items before they become unmade, no one in the novel’s world knows what their belongings are made of, or what will happen if they interact with them directly, without the buffer of the objects’ stamped and rigid identities. Tidbeck reinforces this separation when Vanja’s suitcase dissolves, and the reader learns that she “didn’t know what would happen if she touched” the gloop.

In the earliest portions of the novel, every dissolved item warrants instant action. The dissolution of Vanja’s toothbrush is treated as little more than a mistake—careless, but nothing to be especially concerned about. When her troublesome suitcase reverts back to “whitish gloop,” however, the situation grows dire. Her lover, Nina, must call in a specialized cleaner to prevent the suitcase gloop from spreading to other items in Vanja’s room. Although the substance has “barely spread at all,” the cleaning leaves the floor deeply scarred, and results in the loss of the heroine’s bed and one of her boots.

Vanja discovers that the gloop has sentience through her investigation into the disappearance of a local woman, which leads her to a set of mysterious pipes coming from underneath the outskirts of the colony. After hearing voices from the pipes, she goes to find their source—former citizens of Amatka, transformed into gloopy figures, but still conscious and capable of independent thought.

After Vanja’s brief encounter with Amatka’s underground denizens, unmaking becomes desirable, even necessary. She endeavors to “[s]et the words free,” as one figure requests, and succeeds, but at the cost of her voice, which is taken from her by force. She has committed a revolutionary act, and one which leads each of Amatka’s residents to undergo a complete transformation as they integrate bodily with the gloop—a conversion she cannot make, because she can no longer declare who and what she is.

Where government restricts thought in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the marking convention in Amatka prevents being. The gloop is neither a suitcase, nor a toothbrush, but it is not not those things, either. It could be, certainly, if it chose to be so, but choice has been stripped away from the sentient gloop. It has been weighed, measured, and classified. The moment it dares to become something other than what its label dictates, it is sent for the bin.

The idea of a post-label society may be strange to those of us used to the way that labels like pansexual, nonbinary, and Afro-Latinx allow individuals to express their identities in more fully formed ways. Amatka conceives of a world in which everyone can simply be—and be accepted—outside the confines of particular terms. The gloop is capable of becoming anything, a point Vanja proves when she accidentally unmakes a pencil and reforms it into an approximation of a spoon, just before meeting the gloop-figures. The mysterious substance does not wish to be these items, however, and instead desires freedom from humanity’s labels—a freedom it will extend to its oppressors as well. “You’ll be everything,” one gloop-figure tells Vanja of the coming transformation. “You’ll all be everything.”

Amatka ventures beyond traditional tropes of language and censorship to imagine a near-future, post-label society in which queer and multiracial people—and anyone else whose identity falls between the boxes—can live life unrestricted. Nina’s relationship with her children proves to be a critical example of this, as she—a queer woman—struggles to raise her family according to Amatka’s standards. To prevent children from becoming “dependent and less inclined to feel solidarity with the commune,” the colony restricts Nina and her co-parent, Ivar’s, access to their children to weekly visits. It’s difficult to read these sparse scenes in Amatka and not think of the discrimination that queer and polyamorous partners face when trying to raise a family, and even more so when the children are finally shipped away to the city for supposed safety reasons. Nina’s declaration at the end of the novel—“I’m fetching my children.”—only strengthens this parallel. The freedom offered by her fusion with the gloop gives one of Amatka’s central, queer characters the power to claim direction and control over her own family unit, to make it into what it can be, not what an outsider designates it to be.

Tidbeck’s novel does not imagine a society in which language is dangerous or verboten, but one in which it is used for liberation instead of limitation. Finding new, more expressive words in Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Giver results individual deliverance, but this is not enough for the subjugated gloop of Amatka. Where other authors offer a rough analog of our own world as a remedy to, or a remedied version of, Oceania and The Community, Tidbeck envisions a radical shift, past our present and often problematic use of language, and into a post-label society.

Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Amatka opens on a world afraid of that which it has never tried to understand. As it follows its queer heroine, Tidbeck’s novel, like Orwell’s, moves through a society so trapped by its language that it eradicates anything which dares to be something other than what someone else has declared it to be. As the novel closes, the people of Amatka who have become one with the gloop begin a march on the capitol, intent on liberating all of its residents, human and gloop alike. It’s a rare and beautiful message from a Soviet-esque dystopia, and one that carries hope—not found in Winston Smith’s final, adoring love for Big Brother—for anyone who finds themself existing, or yearning to exist, beyond the margins.

Kristian Wilson Colyard writes fiction and poetry, reads, and does nerdy stuff at her home in the rural American South, where she lives with her husband and their clowder of cats. She’s on Twitter @kristianwriting, and you can find more of her work online at kristianwriting.com.

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