If you've ever tried to learn another language, you've probably encountered the advice to attach labels to all the objects in a room which display those objects' names in the new language. There's surprisingly little evidence of how effective this is, given how commonly it's recommended, but the thinking goes that if you encounter often enough a thing in tandem with the word for that thing, then the association will become ingrained in your brain. (Ingrained in your membrane.) It works better for some people than others, as always, but one of the principal drawbacks is that this isn't really how we use language for either thought or communication: How often do you look at a table and then consciously think "table?" How often do you look at a door and think, "That's a door?"
I mention this not to suggest that this trick can't assist in learning, but to illustrate that while language is our primary means of labelling the world around us, the act of labelling is frequently (mostly?) an unconscious process. This is especially true for the quotidian aspects of our lives; I've worked in more than a few classrooms that have been marked up in the above fashion, and while it may well help the students, as a fluent speaker myself the effect is always ever-so-slightly disorienting. The act of making explicit what was implicit simultaneously renders what was solid and constant up for question; as though no one knows what these things really are and needs perpetual reassurance, lest they forget that the blackboard is, in fact, a blackboard—or lest the blackboard itself forgets what it's supposed to be.
Welcome, then, to Amatka. This is the settlement from which Karin Tidbeck's debut novel takes its name, and much of it will be familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with standard soviet dystopia: collective work units; inadequate resources; unbending, all-powerful committees; and a constant, gnawing cold. Amatka is a city-colony, and in the first chapter we meet our protagonist, Brilars' Vanja Essre Two. (Numbers in names. Nothing says "Oppressive-State Dystopia" quite like numbers in names.) She is travelling out from the metropole of Essre to conduct what amounts to market research, and that a market could exist to research is one of several ways it becomes clear that this world is not quite going to conform to our expectations of it. The most immediate manifestation of this, though, is Vanja's habit of naming all her possessions and surroundings, a habit which her hosts share:
"Vegetable refinery," Nina continued, pointing to at the next building.
"Medical supplies factory." It was slightly smaller than the others.
"Medical supplies factory."
Repair factory, printing workshop, paper factory. Nina pointed out each one, naming them in turn, and Vanja repeated her words. The factories were smaller than in Essre but seem to be better maintained. The words painted on them looked wet and fresh. (p.11)
The words are painted or printed on everything. The words are the names of the things themselves, which the inhabitants of Essre, Amataka, and the two (there were three) other cities of this world ritualistically repeat and inscribe on all the objects they encounter. The catalogue of chants that children learn include not only standards such as "The Pioneer Song," and "The Farmer Song," but also "The Marking Song": "The children took turns pointing to different objects in the room, and everyone laughed whenever it was tricky to fit the words in" (p. 161). Other notes of difference slowly interpose themselves—seemingly free and fair elections to those distant committees, coffee "so strong it was nearly brown" (p. 21)—in amongst the more traditional concerns of centrally allocated food and clothing and the denunciation of thought crime.
Amatka was first published in Swedish in 2012 and was translated into English by the author herself. It follows her excellent new-weird short story collection, Jagganath (2012), and explores similar sub-generic territory. Amatka and its hinterlands bear obvious comparison to notable unplaces such as Delaney's Bellona, Míeville's Cacotopic Stain, or Jeff Vandermeer's Area X (the latter author gets a nod in the acknowledgements): the coffee is nearly brown because it, and most of Amatka's food, is made from mushrooms which are grown in vast underground factories; the outskirts of the city contain a lake which freezes every night so quickly as to be audible, only to completely thaw again in the morning; labyrinthine tunnels and pipes stretch away from the city into a formless periphery beyond; and everything is utterly mutable.
Tidbeck's prose is elegant and dry; jokes don't exactly abound but when they do occur they perfectly complement the setting in their chilly crispness: "You're not from here, are you? It's new. People don't like new. It never turns out well" (p. 26). The characterisation, meanwhile, is quite slow-burn: Vanja grows convincingly as a protagonist, playing her role as unintentionally disruptive outsider with exactly the right sort of nervous aplomb, but she eventually comes off the page by virtue of her relationships with others. She is assigned lodgings with a loose kin-group, headed by Ulltors' Nina Four, and the two women slowly fall for each other, despite Nina's justifiably protective conservatism (a word with prophetically literal connotations here) clashing with Vanja's almost reckless curiosity. Their relationship is one of the highlights of the book, embodying its central thematic tensions and, on a more immediate level, being a genuinely sweet and believable romance between people who mesh as much because of their differences as in spite of them. More immediately fraught is Vanja's other significant relationship, which starts in an awkward fashion and escalates from there.
Vanja meets Samin's Evgen, the slightly obsessive commune librarian, in the midst of a cull of his collection which has been ordered by the (freely elected, remember) central committee. As so often in Amatka, this directive stems from more than simple authoritarian distrust of the written word. Remnants of a less malleable past linger among the city's precariously maintained reality: the original colonists constructed key buildings out of concrete and left a limited stock of paper. The more common, indigenous "mycopaper" has clearly defined scrap-by dates, meaning retranscription is a major bureaucratic undertaking. "Good paper" is thus highly valued for record keeping, for reasons of convenience, and for books of fiction and poetry, for reasons of existential coherence.
The core conceit of Amatka is that things are labelled with words not merely so people will know what they are, but so the things themselves will. The naming of an object does not just designate it, but creates and maintains it, and language is policed with such fervour not simply for the sake of totalitarian conformity, but to maintain reality itself. Woe betide anyone who fails to heed the rules, as poorly labelled items return to their original protoplasmic gloop: "The bottom of the bag was coated in a thick paste. It was the toothbrush. She'd been careless" (p. 20). Correct use of language is thus an absolute existential necessity, the very thing that defines what is. The world of Amatka is, in short, a copy editor's darkest, most ardent wank-fantasy.
Poets, of course, have always fallen foul of linguistic and political authority, have always walked the line between the world as it is and as it could be. Evgen pulls Vanja into a conspiracy revolving around Berol's Anna, the commune's most famous, most revered, and most missing writer.While Vanja's relationship with Nina involves a touching accommodation of the competing needs of curiosity and stability, and of romance and responsibility, the one she develops with Evgen is a far less comforting thing: a mutually enabling drive towards the mysterious macguffin of Berol's Anna, who represents both the potential for escape and an existential threat to Vanja's entire world.
To suggest that language creates reality is nothing new, of course—in the beginning was the word—and nor is it unprecedented to claim that physical and political realities are mutually dependent and constructed. In the spirit of giving the correct names to things, the word we want here is reify: to make the abstract concrete, to make the conceptual real. Amatka interprets this reification as a fairly standard sociopolitical imposition of a pervasive state apparatus, but then goes further to position the im/mutability of language as an ontological parameter of the world itself. In effect, Tidbeck moves beyond the blunt propaganda of Newspeak to literalise the metaphor of language constituting not just thought, but the actual stuff of the world around us. The neurolinguistically-minded among you might recognize in this Steve Pinker's popular-science book, The Stuff of Thought (2007). Quite apart from the title, it also contains a chapter called "The Metaphor Metaphor" and, gloriously, Tidbeck reaches for a comparable recursion here: the literalisation of the literalisation of metaphor metaphor.
The irony underpinning this is that the act of labelling frequently serves to render the connection between an object and its label more tenuous, not less so. In my admittedly rudimentary understanding of Saussurian semiotics, a sign consists of two parts: The signifier—a symbol of some sort: a word, a glyph, an emoji—and the signified, which is the concept(s) attached to the signifier. The signified is, crucially, the idea of a thing, not the physical thing itself, when such exists. One of the more concise definitions of language is that it is a "social semiotic," which highlights the degree to which communication depends on these ideas being, if not replicable exactly, then at least mutually compatible. The signified I envisage when I hear "pen" might be slightly different from yours (What color is it? Is it a ballpoint? A felt tip? A nib?) but there'll be enough overlap for communication to occur, for us to create a shared conception of the world.
However, as soon as I attach a physical label to a physical pen, as soon as I say/write/assert that, "This is a pen," then that conception is no longer just shared but to some degree subsumed: that is a pen, the archetype, the reality, and all others are either identical copies or flawed imposters. The "I" attaching the label becomes a "we," and eventually a "they." This is a pen. This is the Party. This is The Truth. Tidbeck both reverses and extends Orwell's cause and effect: It is not merely the powers that be whose world might collapse if language isn't kept on a tight rein, but the actual literal world for actually literally everyone. This has ramifications, to put it mildly, and they're explored with care and a balance between hope and pessimism that's so finely judged as to be slightly disconcerting.
I think part of the reason those marked-up language classrooms feel so off-kilter is that labelling the physical world is only one of language's primary functions, yet is often treated as if it's the sole purpose. No less important is how language mediates relationships between its users (its interpersonal metafunction, for those of you keeping score), and Amatka gives this frequently underappreciated aspect its full due. For all the ambiguity baked into language and how we use it, it is still a fundamentally cooperative endeavour; it's ultimately Vanja's relationships and how she chooses to cooperate (or not) with those around her that move the book forward. And what is politics if not personal relationships writ large? If on the surface Amatka is quite traditionally dystopian—a life of routine, of doing what you're told, of making sure other things do what they're told—where it gains depth most noticeably is in addressing the linguistic communism enmeshed within with the political: a socialist semiotic.
I've desperately tried to avoid tying this review to current events, because it's just too damn depressing. However, in this time of automated propaganda, when the wormtongued cudgel of "fake news" serves to facilitate political gaslighting on a pancivilizational scale, you can't help trying to reconcile how something seemingly so well-explored as the socio-political construction of language keeps being so timely. I'd like to end on a positive note, because this is a good book and I recommend reading it, but as Tidbeck is content to end her story in a relatively ambiguous manner, I think I'm allowed to do so here. Language is what we make it, and, like the citizens of Amatka, through it we make our worlds, for better and for worse.