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Kallocain Paperback – April 22, 2002
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Library of World Fiction
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Nice little addition to the dystopian canon. It concerns a chemist who develops a truth serum (medication of psychoactive qualities used to obtain hidden information from subjects). He lives in a 'Chemistry City'. His name is Kall, so the drug is after his namesake. He lives in the 'World State', where individuality is curtailed by 'Police Ears and 'Police Eyes' and a redundant Police force.
He uses the drug on 'voluntary test subjects' that 'volunteer for the State'. He eventually wants to use the drug to goad any confession that his wife may have regarding loving his boss, a man named Rissen.
In the end, he is captured by the 'Universal State', a rival neighbor, when they invade the 'World State'. He remains a prisoner in much the same he was in both states, which I suppose is the irony of the all encompassing totalitarian state.
Drugs are also found in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) "Soma" and A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess, "Korova Milk Bar", milk laced with drugs, "Moloko Vellocet", "Milk-plus".
Karin Boye killed herself one year after finishing this novel.
Kallocain was inspired by a trip to the Soviet Union.
This Perfect Day (1970) by Ira Levin
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell
A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
Aniara (1956) by Harry Martinson
We (1921) by Yevgeny Zamyatin
R.U.R. (1920) by Karel Capek
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Facial Justice (1960) by L. P. Hartley
One (1953) by David Karp
The Children's Campaign by Pär Lagerkvist
But there are major differences as well, such that 1984 and Kallocain are both fresh, unique approaches to a shared interest.
If Orwell tended toward the political and cultural diagnosis of the totalitarian state, Boye focuses on its implications for the human heart, without being sentimental. Orwell's Winston Smith does fall in love, but it is a love affair written up by an Englishman. There is sex and coffee and jam, and that very British mix of deep feeling and tenuous expression. Orwell is strongest elsewhere, in the realm of political theory and the subservience of culture to power. Boye, in contrast, brings her poetic sensibilities to bear on the interior lives of people living in the World State to great effect. Orwell's many contraptions -- Newspeak, the many offices, etc.--are not sources of fascination in Kallocain. This is a book about interior lives.
Another marked difference concerns our protagonists. Orwell's Winston Smith is as heroic a figure as one could hope for in his dystopia. From the beginning, we are sympathetic and rooting for him, knowing full well that he is doomed. And Smith does follow the arc from saved to damned. But Boye's Leo Kall is a faithful cog in the machine, loathsome with, at best, momentary flickers of humanity. Credibly, he changes and follows the arc from damned to ... well, we are left with optimism, but no promise. Kall ends where Smith begins. In this sense, Kallocain is less dark, ending with the message that each reader, has within him or her, the green bit of life that troubles the despot because it makes love possible.
If you liked 1984, you are doing yourself a major disservice by not reading this book. Like 1984, it is a compelling read with forward momentum. And it a cautionary tale that, it seems to me, can never be retold often enough.
Idealist Kall sees only its potential to help the life-giving state against its enemies, at first. Of course, he sees his invention turned to the self-serving power struggles of the party oligarchs. He sees how having that drug's power corrupts its possessor, even seeing that corruption arise in himself. By then, the evil genie is out of the bottle and granting the wishes of the oppressive State.
The end of the book seems to wander. Kall sees the full force of The State's anti-terrorist army directed against a nameless little band of dreamers. He takes part in vaguely horrific trials for capital crimes against The State, with executions handed down apparently on whims and personal grudges. He ends his story with ambiguous dreams, still hoping that his pharmacological creation can live on, and still hoping (against evidence) that it can be used for genuine good.
It's worth reading, though. It captures the fears of its early Soviet and pre-Nazi era, and captures the time's faith (and fear) in the power of science. And it reminds technologists that, although scientific results have no inherent morality, the people who create and use those results do - or should.