Kallocain by Karen Boye


Science Fiction

Kallocain KallocainKarin Boye; University of Wisconsin Press 2002WorldCatLeo and Linda and their three children live very regimented lives in Chemistry City #4. They are loyral citizens of the Worldstate. They have children to help increase the declining population. They put in their military duty two or three nights a week. They have family nights twice a week. Their oldest child, their son, comes home from children’s camp for these family nights, then returns to camp to live. The two girls still live at home but the older will soon be 7 and leave for camp too. Their festival nights are to praise the Worldstate. There are electronic eyes and ears in every room of every home and building. All invidivual wishes and needs are secondary to the Worldstate’s needs. The Worldstate is at war with other governments in the world.

Leo is a chemist who discovers a new serum. He is sure it will be beneficial for the Worldstate. It is a truth serum with side effects of mild nausea and headache. The person given the drug will remember everything said under the drug’s effects. Leo knows it will be perfect for determining the guilt or innocence of criminals coming before the court. The accused won’t be able to deny his involvement or innocence of the crime of which he(she) is accusued of doing. Courts won’t be needed, just judges.

After trying Kallokain on some test subjects, Leo sees the further uses for the drug. It can be used to rout out seditious thoughts against the Worldstate. As the headline announced when the law was passed to use it: “Thoughts Can Be Judged.” Any citizen could swear out a warrant against another for disloyalty. Now Leo has to wrestle with his own conscious. He is sure his supervisor had an affair with his wife. Should he swipe a little of the drug and give it to Linda? Or should he swear an affadavit against the other man? Now he begins to realize the potential threats of Kallocain as well as its uses. He hopes it isn’t used on him.

Kallocain is a dystopic novel that is much darker than Orwell’s 1984. Even before the truth drug is put to use there are disturbing pictures. Early in the book the members of a girls camp are sent off to another city within the Worldstate to “balance” the pre-ordained numbers. Because of security reasons, no one knows where they are going, even themselves. They will be cut off completely from Chemistry City #4. Yet the send off is a festival for the girls so the members of the city can celebrate the honor of the Worldstate. Families are being torn apart, but what are families compared to the Worldstate?

The Worldstate tries to brainwash all its citizens. When Leo is first trialling Kallocain, his supervisor cautions, “This much at least is certain – the last vestige of our private lives will then be gone.” Leo responds with “Well, that is not too important!…it means simply that the great communion is near its fulfillment.”

Yet as the reader gets involved in this first person narrative, it is obvious that Leo’s private thoughts are important to him, too. He believes the good of the Worldstate is the ultimate goal. About half way through the book he says “If there were a cause and reason for confidence among individuals, the State would never have come into existance. The sacred and essential foundation for the State is our mutual and well founded suspicion of each other. Anyone questioning this foundation throws suspicion on the State.” Yet his own jealousy of his supervisor and suspicions of his wife show the personal side as well. He loves Linda but can’t trust her. They can’t discuss their fears or problems because that would show disloyalty to the Worldstate.

Karen Boye was a Swedish writer in the 1930’s who died in 1941. Kallocain came out in 1940 probably resulting from the experiments of the time with truth drugs. She was primarily a poet with a dark view of life that comes through in her work (according to the introduction of the copy of Kallocain I borrowed). This novel came out between Brave New World and 1984 but foreshadows the same type of totalitarian future. Leo is fairly naive despite being over 40 and having lived in the Worldstate all his life. Boye uses his naivity to highlight the problems in the Worldstate.

With the use of Kallocain, the drug, and the new law, no one can be trusted. Any person could see “reasonable” guilt or disloyalty in another. While a citizen has to sign his or her complaint, the accused never knows who did the accusing. This then can lead to person abuses, such as Leo wanting to punish his supervisor. He, as a good man, recognizes the danger of power. That doesn’t stop others from taking it, though.

This cautionary novel has not sustained in the English-speaking world the way Brave New World or 1984 have. It is every bit as good and ranks right there with them. If those worlds fascinated you, you’ll like Kallocain.

The supervisor Leo hates makes an astute observation about the Worldstate – “the sick has now become the norm and the healthy a horror.”

This book may be in your local public library, but don’t count on that. I live in a very populous area in Southern California. I finally found an old copy in one of the local university libraries that has special studies in science fiction. Thank you to one of my fellow readers at The Reader’s Place for recommending this title.

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