Vanja arrives in Amatka from Essre, another nearby colony, sent by her job to do consumer research. Each colony is run as a commune, with a democratically elected committee that is oversees it. Though there is cooperation between the colonies, there is the sense that something is immediately different about Amatka, and about this world. Our first introduction to this is subtle, on page four. Vanja, on a train heading into Amatka, sets down her suitcase as the train embarks from the station.
“It wasn’t going to last long: the word SUITCASE was almost illegible. She could fill in the letters, of course, but the question was what would happen first--that the bag simply fell apart from wear or that it dissolved when she put it away. She really ought to scrap it. “Suitcase,” Vanja whispered, to keep its shape a little longer. “Suitcase, suitcase.”
In this world, objects keep their shape only as long as you remind them to. Reality is contractual, and must be renewed through thought, repetition, and intention. It’s an intriguing premise for a novel, and Tidbeck threads it through other aspects of her world-building. How can a society function when it’s constantly on the brink of physical dissolution? In Amatka, the answer is strict discipline and stricter punishments for infractions. The commune’s bureaucracy controls nearly all aspects of its citizens’ lives: their work, leisure, familial relationships, reproduction, and creative impulses are all regulated. Eccentrism and antisocial behaviors are punished both officially and by its conformist population. This control extends, as it always does in authoritarian regimes, to the narrative of Amatka’s history.
“Have you ever dreamed about something that doesn’t, I mean, that doesn’t belong here?”
Nina stiffened. “Why would you ask me that?”
“I was just wondering.”
Nina rolled over onto her back. She stared at the ceiling.
“I think everyone has,” Vanja said. “Sometime.”
“I don’t understand why you want to talk about it.
Vanja hesitated. “Not sure.
Nina glanced at her. She extended an arm and pointed at the poster on the wall. As morning comes we see and say: today’s the same as yesterday. “Today’s the same as yesterday,” she said.
“Today’s the same as yesterday,” Vanja echoed. (96-7)
Vanja becomes acquainted with two elders in Amatka -- one a librarian and archivist, the other a retired doctor -- who help her see the cracks in the story that the colony tells about itself. Eventually, she realizes that this story is the only thing that the colony can control, but their hold on it as rapidly loosening.
I loved Vanja as a protagonist. She’s a very quiet rebel, whose unruliness is of an entirely different sort than other dystopian heroines. She’s an adult, for one thing, which shifts this story away from the coming-of-age narratives that overpopulate stories about intrusive governments. The sins that she has committed in the eyes of the state are deeply relatable: she loved her father too fiercely, she cannot bear children, she feels too much, she is too curious. She is incapable of enthusiastically participating in her own or others’ oppression.
Amatka’s story feels queer to me on multiple levels, beyond the simple and obvious one: Vanja falls in love with her roommate, Nina, and decides to stay in Amatka after finishing her assignment to be with her. Her love for Nina informs the story, but there’s a more subtle queerness that I’m still struggling to articulate.
To value queerness means to value flux, subversion, and the new worlds that can emerge from chaos. Queer is a strange bridge that crosses between the individual and the dissolution of the individual. The colonizers that came to the world of Amatka imposed order, and do all that they can to ruthlessly maintain it. And yet, it falls apart anyway, in a gloriously strange and sad way. I can’t say more without spoiling the ending.
The more I think about Amatka, the more wonder I feel at its craft. Tidbeck is a careful and restrained writer, and the worldbuilding here is working on a number of levels; some of them so subtle, I’m only realizing them in retrospect. (Even the cover design echoes the worldbuilding.) It took me a few weeks to get into it -- but that’s possibly as much to do with grad school brain as it is with Amatka’s quiet beginning and tense pacing. I was hooked around page fifty, as much by the questions it posed about humanity and reality, as by the mysteries of the world.
Amatka’s more cerebral than visceral, atmospheric and emotional without being overbearing. It’s subtle and sad and beautiful -- a perfect tale for the end of a long winter.