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Kallocain, by Karin Boye, noted Swedish poet and author, is a dystopian narrative that fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Orwell's 1984, Zamyatin's We, or Huxley's Brave New World. That it is not part of the core lineage of 20th century political dystopian literature may be because it was not translated into English until 1966, or because it was written by a woman, or both. But it is unfortunate that even now, 50 years after it became accessible to English readers, it is still not better known and acknowledged.

Written eight years before Orwell's 1984, Kallocain place in a future in which the state - to be specific, the totalitarian police state - is all, and the individual nothing. Readers of 1984 will find much that is familiar; sparse living quarters, rationing, constant surveillance, the ever-present atmosphere of suspicion, politically correct expression, conformity of action and an on-going threat of war with other states about which nothing is known but that they are the enemy. There are no minutes of hate in Kallocain, but there are structured festivals that celebrate the state, weekly broadcasts in which people who have misspoken must make their apologies and corrections. The mechanisms of social control in the WorldState (so named even though it is just one of several states) are perhaps a little less dramatic, but no less all-encompassing.

But these are external manifestations of the totalitarian state. Kallocain concerns itself with the inner self under a social and political order that demands universal devotion and loyalty to the state and its ideology. As the novel's protagonist. Chemist Leo Kain, comes to realise, there are always those whose thoughts rebel, lack the singleminded purity required of them. Those who question, those who resent, those who watch and remember, those who imagine another way of being. And because he himself fears the embers of these thoughts in his own mind, he produces a drug, Kallocain, which relaxes inhibition and causes those under its influence to speak their inner truths, a drug which he offers to the state as the answer to identifying those committing these internal forms of sedition.

There is much that is chilling in the descriptions of how everything from family life to human scientific experimentation is handled in this future state, but it all follows quite logically from the basic premise of such systems, that the collective is all and the individual nothing.

I've long been fascinated by dystopian literature, and yet only recently did I learn of the existence of this novel. I'm very glad to have finally been introduced to it.

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