The title of this post might make you think I’m alluding to the dumpster fire that is current American politics, but you’d be wrong. Although the generalized anxiety so many of us are feeling is likely caused by the chaos, I’m only referring to two novels I recently read.
Summer might not seem like the time for dystopian reading, but somehow it’s happened to me this summer. One of my favorite reads last month was Gather the Daughters. Like that novel, Out in the Open is scariest because it’s not clear it’s about the distant future. Both have the feel that they could be taking place now.
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
Published by Vintage
Publication date: June 27th 2017
Genres: Dystopian, Science Fiction, Debut
No one knows where we are. But we’re not allowed to say that.
From the beginning Amatka generates a prickly feeling of disquiet. Is it because the protagonist, Vanja, calls her watch her “wrist clock” or that she worries about marking every object she encounters with its name? Odd, but these could be personal tics. Otherwise, the description of her remote, cold world could be an old-school Communist nation; partitioned into four colonies, each fulfilling a need for the greater community—Essre, the administrative center; Balbit, science and research; Odek, industry and Amatka, agriculture. There was a fifth colony, but it is long gone and never discussed. Vanja is sent to Amatka as a researcher to determine what kind of personal hygiene products they need. She meets her new roommate, Nina, and it is as Nina corrects her for misspeaking about how many floors are in their house that a radar clicks on. When Vanja goes to unpack her belongings and finds that her toothbrush has dissolved into a puddle of sticky white goop, she is terrified. So am I and I don’t know why. Yet.
Author Karen Tidback fosters the creeping dread in Amatka by blending it with the very real facts of a totalitarian regime. Communities are separate with little to no communication between them, there is no freedom of speech and life is highly regimented. Whatever came before is not discussed and by Vanja’s time is barely remembered. But, as she settles into her new assignment, she finds herself questioning—the one thing that is not tolerated. When she meets a librarian (Yes! Go librarians!) who has access to writings from the old world she starts looking for answers on her own.
For some the pace of Amatka may be too slow, but I was reminded of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Something’s not quite right, but how big or bad can it be? By making what is wrong something as simple as the necessity to name everything properly and repeatedly Tidbeck makes the innocuous feel dangerous. If, by the end, the plot is less than satisfying Amatka is still an interesting take on authoritarianism and the power of the human mind.
For a novel that contains only a young boy, an old man and a herd of goats, Out in the Open manages to convey a fear that seeps off the page and into the consciousness. Author Jesús Carrasco is as sparse with details in this novel as is the tortured landscape he creates. In an unnamed country at an unknown time, the boy has run away from his village and is being hunted. He meets the elderly goatherd, a man who speaks little, but indicates the boy can join him as he journeys from village to village selling the goats’ milk. In this way he can try and get north to a better life.
Why this boy would become the subject of a hunt is not clear initially. What is, is that drought has decimated the land and left behind, in the dust, the lawlessness of power and violence. The goatherd and boy have nothing more to eat than nuts, raisins, bread, and cheese. Water is their most precious resource, finding it their largest occupation, simple survival their only goal. As the pursuit intensifies, we learn that the boy is a toy for the bailiff and is highly prized enough that the man will stop at nothing to find him. At each step in Out in the Open Carrasco uses the fewest words possible to wring out the largest of human emotions—fear, anger, kindness.
Out in the Open is not a novel of grand devices and wildly imaginative dystopian images. There is no futuristic element in the deprivation and brutality of the characters’ lives. Instead, with prose that is as spare as the land around them, Carrasco gives the reader everything they need to feel the sickly terror the boy feels at being captured and returned to his former life. Reality is the dystopia.