Where to Start With the Wondrously Strange Stories of Karin Tidbeck

“Such is the world in which we live, Teacher Jonas said. The words need guarding. A citizen who doesn’t guard their words could destroy their commune.” (Amatka, 137)

It’s relatively rare to read the first couple of pages of a book and know that you have immediately found a new favourite author, but that was my feeling on reading the opening chapter of Karin Tidbeck’s remarkable novel Amatka (2017). Here was a writer who clearly valued and prioritised everything that I find most compelling about speculative fiction: carefully crafted prose, evocative yet sparse. Characters who are ill at ease with their own world, who can’t help but poke holes round the edges of their reality. A sense of looking at the real world obliquely, using the Weird and the uncanny to more clearly discern profound truths about the world we live in.

I was immediately hooked, and knew I had to read everything Tidbeck wrote that I could get my hands on.

This includes the superlative short story collection Jagannath (2012), short stories published by Tor.com, Uncanny Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and Strange Horizons, and the 2021 novel The Memory Theater. Jagannath was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and made the James Tiptree Jr. Award (now the Otherwise Award) shortlist, and their short story “Augusta Prima” won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, whilst several of their short stories have appeared in year’s best anthologies. And yet I’d argue that Tidbeck’s work has still not received a fraction of the attention it deserves. This is a great shame, as I count them as one of the most exciting and original voices in current speculative fiction.

Tidbeck’s fiction is wondrously strange, often occupying the boundaries between genres. A Swedish author who originally began writing in Swedish, they have both translated their own work into English and written stories in English that they have then translated into Swedish. Their stories tend to operate according to a dream logic, where a bizarre or unusual idea becomes so convincingly integrated into the world of the story the reader can find themselves doubting the reality around them. The end result is profoundly uncanny but also frequently mischievously humorous and surprisingly touching. Jagannath serves as an excellent introduction to their short fiction, demonstrating Tidbeck’s remarkable range. Here are steampunk stories in which people fall in love with airships and steam engines, Borgesian taxonomies of shapeshifting creatures, and the most viscerally disturbing explorations of embodiment since the short stories of James Tiptree, Jr. Each one is built around a fantastical or speculative element, but the stories focus on the inner lives of their characters as they go about their business. Which is not to say that many of these characters don’t lead very strange lives indeed. But much of what makes Tidbeck’s writing so remarkable is the way the strangeness in the stories interacts with and shapes the experiences of their characters.

Sometimes this can be in small, humorous ways, as in “Who Is Arvid Pekon?”, in which the operator of a switchboard for a government agency finds himself unwittingly acting as a conduit for telephone messages to and from Hell. In other stories, the uncanny encroaches on the recognisable everyday world around its edges. The writer in “Brita’s Holiday Village” who stays in a hotel village out of season discovers that while the tourists are away it acts as the breeding ground for strange creatures. The two sisters in “Reindeer Mountain” encounter the fair folk in the Norwegian mountains of their family home. And in “Some Letters for Ove Lindström,” a daughter returning to the site of her family’s hippy commune discovers that her vanished mother may be something more than human. These stories are filled with a palpable sense of longing, as the characters feel the pull of the supernatural world as it encroaches on their everyday lives.

Other stories create and explore worlds more radically different than ours. “Rebecka” imagines a reality in which God regularly physically intervenes in human lives, and examines the theological problem of evil—why does God let bad stuff happen to people?—from the perspective of a suicidal woman who was tortured and raped by her husband before the Almighty intervened. “Augusta Prima” and “Aunts” would later form the germ of the story idea for Tidbeck’s novel The Memory Theater, and are set in the court of Mnemosyne, where decadent immortals enjoy their violent and depraved games outside of space and time. “Aunts” in particular is incredible. It is a vivid and viscerally upsetting work of fairy tale body horror, in which the monstrous Aunts must endlessly consume in order to incubate the next generation, who then eat their way out of the previous Aunts’ corpses. The title story, “Jagannath,” possibly my favourite of Tidbeck’s short stories, is even more strange and unfamiliar. Set inside the body of a strange insectile beast, the narrative follows the birth of the girl Rak from a tube in the Nursery ceiling to her work massaging food through the creature’s entrails, to her emergence into the outside world and the start of a new uncomfortable symbiotic cycle.

The delicate balance between symbiosis and parasitism recurs as a central theme in Tidbeck’s linked short stories “Sing” (2013) and its sequel “Listen” (2016). Set on the moon of a gas giant where the celestial bodies swallows sound when they rise, over the course of the story the reader must piece together the sinister relationship between the inhabitants and the insectile birds, and how this relationship has shaped protagonist Aino’s life. “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” (2019) is set on a living ship which moves between dimensions. While the transport authorities and the captain see Skidbladnir as merely a machine to command as they please, the janitor Saga and engineer Novik see it as a fellow being that must be respected and cared for. These stories, for all their vibrant strangeness, are moving reflections on what it means to be part of a society and to depend on others, as well as the various barriers that prevent people from participating in society.

These themes carry through to Tidbeck’s novels. Amatka is a powerfully unsettling work of speculative fiction that plays with the idea of how language shapes consensus reality. It is another one of Tidbeck’s stories set in a world alien to our own, in which the reader must figure out the rules for how this reality works from the context. Tidbeck isn’t one for exposition, instead painting absorbing and fascinating worlds through the ways they shape their characters’ behaviour. We are introduced to Amatka’s protagonist Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two in a train carriage where every item is meticulously labelled with its own name, and Vanja is murmuring “Suitcase, suitcase” at her suitcase to try to get it to keep its shape a little while longer. This is a world in which anything not carefully labelled with its name is in danger of reverting into a formless mass. From this simple yet bizarre and slightly frightening idea, Tidbeck builds an entire society. Vanja has been taught from the nursery the importance of maintaining labels on everything:

“Let’s mark all the things in here,” Vanja sang under her breath, letting her eyes wander around the room. “Table, chair, and a pot here; stovetop, fridge, and pantry there. We mark all things in our care.” (21)

Soon we discover that this care and paranoia has expanded to create a society terrified of its own subconscious urges, in which this fear is papered over with petty bureaucracy and a denial of the imagination. Vanja has been sent by a soap company to find out why their product does not sell as well in Amatka as in her home city of Essre, but even as she falls in love with her new housemate Nina and makes preparations to move permanently to Amatka, she finds herself drawn into a burgeoning resistance movement. Resistance and dissent in Amatka cause literal ruptures in consensus reality, the violent return of everything its citizens have so carefully repressed. Amatka descends into a reality-twisting nightmare worthy of Philip K. Dick at his most unhinged, as we soon discover the bizarre and frightening truth behind the world of the novel. But at the heart of the book is Vanja’s relationship with Nina, two lonely people discovering that they can find the meaning they seek in each other. The tragedy of the novel comes from the conflict between Vanja’s desire for a safe, settled life with Nina, who is very much a true believer in the colony and its regulations and rituals, and her need to find out the truth about the world she inhabits—two things that ultimately prove to be incompatible.

The Memory Theater is a very different book to Amatka, being closer to something resembling fantasy. As I’ve mentioned, the novel expands on the world introduced in the short stories “Augusta Prima” and “Aunts,” starting in the timeless Gardens of the cruel fairy immortals of Mnemosyne’s court. This story is told from the perspective of Thistle, a human boy kidnapped to serve the immortals, doomed to never grow old until his patron, Lady Augusta Prima, finishes carving the pattern on his skin, when he will die. Thistle and Dora—a daughter of one of the immortal creatures, wished into existence on a whim, then cruelly ignored—find a way to escape the Gardens and travel through dimensions, where they find themselves traveling with the Memory Theater, a troupe of actors whose job is to perform plays of events from reality from behind the scenes, plays that simply appear and must be performed so that the stories may be remembered. As their Director explains to Thistle and Dora:

“We go wherever the playbook leads us. Most of the time it’s about reenacting an important scene that needs remembering. Sometimes we pay tribute to important people. Sometimes to ordinary people, like Knut Olesen the fisherman. We stay backstage, though. We see and experience, but we don’t touch.” (86)

The Memory Theater is an inventive mix of fairy tale and multidimensional speculative fiction, a story that combines dream-like fantastical sequences with metafictional reflections on the importance of storytelling as a function of memory in culture. At well under 300 pages, Tidbeck crams more invention and variety into their pages than many other writers manage in multivolume epics. Yet for all its sprawling inventiveness, the book is again anchored by its characters. Thistle and Dora are loveable outcasts running from fear and abuse, who manage to find a new family amongst the eccentric dimension-traveling performers in the Memory Theater. The novel reveals the full extent of Augusta’s monstrousness—with her shallowness and self-absorption, she is a truly frightening and destructive figure. Thistle becomes conflicted between his desire for justice and his desire for revenge. Ultimately his and Dora’s happy ending is all the more affecting for how hard-earned it is.

As of 2023, Tidbeck’s output is relatively small, but the quality of their work means that a new story from them is always cause for excitement. Their restless creativity is demonstrated by the fact that as well as writing novels and short stories, they have also written for video games such as Mage the Ascension: Refuge (2017), digital short stories in collaboration with the art center Signal, and an interactive story project called Hansel and Gretel in Pripyat (2014), developed with Sweden’s Scenlaboratoriet, where the audience’s brainwaves shape the story arc. This restless curiosity informs their fiction as well: Tidbeck’s stories never take the easy way out, always looking for ways to challenge their audience’s assumptions and play with the limitations of genre. For all of these reasons, Tidbeck continues to be a vital and exciting voice in speculative fiction and fantasy, and one whose next move is impossible to predict.

Jonathan Thornton has written for the websites The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction, and Gingernuts of Horror. He works with mosquitoes and is working on a PhD on the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction.

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