Watch What You Say: Language Shapes Reality in Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka

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In Karin Tidbeck‘s Amatka (Vintage, 2017), words weave—and have the potential to shred—the fabric of reality.

Karen TIdbeck
(Photo: Andreas Ingefjord)

Amatka was shortlisted for the Compton Crook and Locus Awards. A reviewer on NPR called it “a warped and chilling portrait of post-truth reality” while a Chicago Tribune reviewer called it “disturbing and provocative.”

The book’s title takes its name from a colony settled at an unspecified point in the past by pioneers. Life there is hard; not only is it always maddeningly cold, but a paucity of resources requires the colonists to recycle everything, including dead bodies, and they depend on mushrooms for all their nourishment.

But the most unusual feature of life in Amatka is that all objects must be labeled. According to the rules set forth by a secretive ruling committee, a pencil must be labeled “pencil.” A toothbrush must be labeled “toothbrush.” If a label wears off, or if something is mislabeled, the consequences are disastrous: the object degenerates into a primordial substance known as gloop.

Tidbeck says in our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction that the novel began as a thought experiment. Essentially, she wondered, “What if we lived in a world where reality is controlled by language?” The idea was inspired, in part, by the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which holds that the structure of a language affects the speakers’ worldview. Thus, in Amatka, “Language has enormous power. You have to be extremely careful about what you say, what you do… because upsetting the order of things can literally mean the end of the world.”

To avoid the risk of things transforming into gloop, the colony Amatka (and therefore the book Amatka) doesn’t use homonyms, synonyms or metaphors—a principle adhered to not only in the original Swedish but in the English translation.

Amatka itself actually started as a poetry collection, but when Tidbeck couldn’t find a publisher, she turned the book into a narrative, a process that took six years. But Tidbeck hasn’t abandoned poetry entirely. As the plot unfolds, the main character, Vanja, is inspired by a book of poetry to rebel. Thus words serve as both the backbone of this cold authoritarian society and also offer—through poetry—a route to freedom.

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