Reading the 1941 Retro Hugo Best Novel Nominees – Kallocain by Karin Boye

I finished Kallocain early this morning.  Finished is too final a word.  I doubt this book will ever fully leave me.  I should give this book four or five stars, but it’s hard to ‘lie’ to myself (as the narrator so aptly does until nearly the end) that I liked or loved this book.  It’s dystopian ficion – not an overly likeable or loveable subgenre of science fiction. Even so, decades later, we as a society still devour and crave stories that allow us to peer through a mirror darkly at what might grow if we nurture security at the expense of liberty.

Often compared to Huxley’s Brave New World (published eight yours before Kallocain) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (published eight yours after), and having read both of those famous classics, I put forth that Boye’s Kallocain is more insidious, more disturbing than either.  Leo Kall invents a drug which facilitates the policing of thoughts, the ‘holy grail’ of any totalitarian police state.  The tragedy is Kall’s complete almost innocent faith in his Worldstate while his closest fellow-soldiers (wife, supervisor, test subjects and high ranking officials) exhibit humanity (laudible traits and those less laudible ones that bear fruit in totalitarian regins) and individuality.  Kall wishes to eradicate these treasonous thoughts in others and so aids less scrupulous officials in legislating and condemning them.  Once he achieves a modicum of his own power and acts upon his fears, Kall beings to regret, doubt takes root, innocence toward the benevolence of the Worldstate crumbles and his conscience awakes.

More heartbreaking, though, to me, as read in the forward is the resultant suicide of Karin Boye within a year of completing this manuscript.  She wrote to her publisher in August 1940 ‘… and, if it’s any consolation, I promise that I shall never write anything so macabre again.’  A truer statement has never been penned.  Boye is best remembered for her poetry.  As referenced in the Introduction to Kallocain by Richard B. Vowles (written December 1965):

Karin Boye’s final vision is concentrated in the brief, but lovely, “Dark Angels,” one of her final poems:

The dark angels with blue flames
like flowers for fire in their black hair
know the answers to strange, blasphemous questions —
and perhaps they know where the bridge is
from the depths of night to the light of day —
and perhaps they know the guise of all unity —
and there may be in our final home
a bight dwelling that bears their name.

Of the five nominees (all of which I’ve read, with the exception of the Ill-Made Knight which I’m reading now), I believe Kallocain deserves the first ranking, both for Boye’s vision and her literary talent.

Best Novel (352 nominating ballots)

  • Gray Lensman by E.E. “Doc” Smith (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Jan 1940)
  • The Ill‐Made Knight by T.H. White (Collins)
  • Kallocain by Karin Boye (Bonnier)
  • The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson (Unknown, Mar 1940)
  • Slan by A.E. Van Vogt (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Dec 1940)

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