Horror or Dystopia? Karin Boye’s “Kallocain”

“I’m scared,” said the Swedish writer Karin Boye after the publication in 1940 of her dystopian novel, Kallocain.

It is the most terrifying dystopian novel I have ever read.  And I can’t quite decide whether it is science fiction or horror.

It had special meaning in 1940,  with the rise of Hitler and Stalin.  The Swedes had to be careful of what they said or wrote, because the Swedish Security police were intent on not attracting the attention of the Nazis.  Karin Boye was so terrified at an election rally where Hermann Goering spoke that she made a Nazi salute at the end.  It could have meant death if she hadn’t.

 Here is the advantage of science fiction:  a writer can criticize the government or the culture in dangerous times without attracting much notice.  And that was Boye’s experience.  The authorities apparently didn’t read or even notice her SF novel.

In Kallocain, the anti-hero narrator, Leo Kall, writes a dangerous book.  He is too naïve to expect trouble but he says “it will seem pointless to many – if indeed I dare suppose that ‘many’ will ever have a chance to read it.”  He writes from prison, where he continues his work as a chemist by day, so he leads an almost normal life-– that is, if anyone’s workday is normal when he has invented a truth drug, named after himself, Kallocain.  

Kall discovers the drug in his late thirties, and he is eager for the state to use it.  All his life he has been patriotic, and he has never questioned the surveillance culture, or the role his drug might play in it. We can tell by his interactions with his wife Linda that she is savvier, more aware of the hypocrisy and abuses of the military government.  But the couple are  too conscious of the surveillance equipment in their apartment to discuss anything in depth.

 Kall tells Linda how excited he is when Kallocain is ready to use on “human material.” The “human material” comes from the Voluntary Sacrifice Service, a group of people who choose, usually when they are adolescents after watching propaganda films,  to have a career as guinea pigs in scientific experiments.  They don’t live too long – they develop medical problems during the experiments – but they are fiercely patriotic and are doing it for their country, or so they say.

No. 35 shows up with his arm in a sling, and does not look very healthy. Kall tells his supervisor, Rissen, that he wishes they had a “fresher” subject, but  there’s no one to send: there  have been so many experiments with poison gas lately.

Under the influence of Kallocain, No. 35 says he’s never felt so good.  “But how afraid I am,” he says, sobbing. He is unhappy and always afraid.  He talks about the propaganda that led to his choice of profession. After what he’s seen, he despairs about his choice.  He says, “It’s impossible to cope with this, even if you were once allowed to experience… But you’re ashamed.  Ashamed to betray the only moment in life that was worth something.”

When the drug wears off, he begs them not to let the police know what he has said.  He didn’t mean it because he was under the drug, he insists.  Kall and Rissen assure him that it won’t be held against him, but both know that most likely it will.

As the increasingly dangerous interviews continue, people are imprisoned because of what they say under the influence of Kallocain.  Kall is very excited about the drug’s success, but Rissen has a restraining, if not quite humanizing, influence on Kall. Rissen is a sad, brilliant, worn-out man who hints to Kall that there are some flaws in their culture, and that there might be people who would be happier living another way.  But Kall is so pompous about his scientific discovery that he gets angrier and angrier at Rissen. 

When the experiments progress to the point that the police are involved, because they can use it to convict anybody they dislike,  Kall remains elated and impervious to its misuse.  One day a newspaper headline says:  THOUGHTS CAN BE PUNISHED.  In a normal novel, a scientist would perhaps be mortified and terrified by  the drug he has created, but in this dark novel, the genius is so simple-minded that he finds the new law very logical.  And yet his simplicity does not alienate Rissen or Linda, who look on him as a dangerous, simple child.  

Dangerous information continues to leak out. One of the experimental subjects admits that there are groups of people who get together and don’t talk about patriotism.  They talk about nothing much, or are quiet, but it is a new way of being together.  To Kall this is baffling, though Rissen and Linda help him see things differently – eventually.

In our society, a version of Kallocain – truth serum? – has been around for a long time, and I’ve never given it a thought. Does it work? Is it used by the military or the police?  Anything that invasive should be banned.  Perhaps that’s why we never hear about it.

But our country, though it is far better than the dystopian World government that produces Chemistry City No. 4 , relies on many of the atrocious military weapons also produced in Boye’s dystopia. And I do not think it is a good idea for our country to use or provide these weapons to other countries.

Later in the novel, Bissen is given Kallocain, and says in a dramatic scene:

“Can you hear the truth? Not everyone is true enough to hear the truth, that is the sad thing. It could be a bridge between one person and another – as long as it is voluntary, yes – as long as it is given like a gift at and received as a gift.  Isn’t it strange that everything loses its value as soon as it ceases to be a gift?  ….  Community, you say – community?  Welded together?  And that is what you shout, each from your own side of an abyss.  Was there no point, not one, not one, in the long evolution of the human race, when another path could have been chosen?  Must the path go over the abyss?  No point where the armoured chariot of power could have stopped rolling toward the emptiness?…”

Bissen’s  words save Kall, at least somewhat, from uncritically embracing the military state.   This is a classic, but brace yourself.  It might be wise to have some comfort chocolate or a glass of wine nearby if it gets too intense.  

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