Book review: Kallocain by Karin Boye

Kallocain by Karin Boye
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: Amazon • TBDGoodreads
Publication Date: 1940
Source: Purchased

This is a novel of the future, profoundly sinister in its vision of a drab terror. Ironic and detached, the author shows us the totalitarian World-state through the eyes of a product of that state, scientist Leo Kall. Kall has invented a drug, kallocain, which denies the privacy of thought and is the final step towards the transmutation of the individual human being into a “happy, healthy cell in the state organism.” For, says Leo, “from thoughts and feelings, words and actions are born. How then could these thoughts and feelings belong to the individual? Doesn’t the whole fellow-soldier belong to the state? To whom should his thoughts and feelings belong then, if not to the state?”

As the first-person record of Leo Kall, scientist, fellow-soldier too late disillusioned to undo his previous actions, Kallocain achieves a chilling power and veracity that place it among the finest novels to emerge from the strife-torn Europe of the twentieth century.

I’m just going to put this out there: I wasn’t the most responsible student. It should be pretty clear that I love to read, and it will probably come as no surprise that sometimes I took two or three lit classes in a semester. The problem was that I would end up with reading assignments of 600 or more pages each night, and I’d have to pick and choose which ones I was going to do. (I may love to read, but 600 pages every night is a little much for even the most voracious reader.) The classes with pop quizzes and upcoming exams or papers always won. My Scandinavian literature in translation course, while I loved it, was usually on the back burner because the professor didn’t believe in quizzing us on what we were reading. So some books, like this lovely Kallocain, fell to the back of my bookcase and were never thought of again.

Kallocain was originally assigned to me in the spring of 2011. I finally read it in December of 2014. I don’t know what I expected. I have only a very vague recollection of the professor explaining it in class. Maybe I was imagining something like the boring, formulaic dystopias of today. But that’s not what this is.

This is a wonderful story of a scientist, Leo Kall, who develops a truth serum (Kallocain) while working in one of the Worldstate’s chemistry laboratories. Leo is excited about his discovery and knows that it will greatly benefit the Worldstate by alleviating some of the pressure on the legal system. After all, now suspected criminals will just be given a dose of Kallocain and confess all their crimes!

When Kallocain moves into human testing, Leo finds that many of his fellow-soldiers harbor negative feelings toward the Worldstate. He knows that the individual is of no importance aside from what he can offer the Worldstate, and that so many people feel otherwise is baffling to him. Thank goodness for Kallocain, he thinks, because now these thought criminals can be prosecuted. But soon, Leo begins fearing the consequences of his drug. What if Kallocain were to be misused? What might Leo himself reveal if he were forced to undergo an injection? Has he made a great mistake?

Written over seventy years ago, Kallocain was surprisingly ahead of its time. In such a short book (just around 200 pages), it’s difficult to delve into specifics without spoiling the plot. Let me just say that the book is extremely well-written and still relevant to today’s society.

If you enjoyed 1984 or We, you will likely enjoy Kallocain.

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