Halfway through Karin Tidbeck’s new novel Amatka, a woman named Vanja begins an office job. She spends her first day paddling through a sea of paperwork, filing page after page of documents attesting to the most mundane developments in the lives of those around her—births, deaths, educational milestones, retirements. When she returns home, her hands are pale from the labor. “That night, she had a completely normal dream: she sorted forms,” Tidbeck writes.
In any other narrative, this would be a scene of near-fatal drudgery, evidence of bureaucracy’s tiresome weight. In Amatka, by contrast, the sequence is almost comforting. Here, at least, there is something resembling normalcy, a sign that the center might hold, that reality might cohere. It does not, not for long. Something like a falcon keens in the wilderness beyond town. The falconer can only ignore its call for so long. This is a story about the way reality crumbles—a timely and troubling novel that ranks among the best works of queer science fiction.
We often praise science-fiction writers for their deft world-building, a term that suggests a capacity to imagine fully rendered elsewheres into being, places that feel so right we forget their dreamed-up origins. Tidbeck, a student of the weird fiction impresarios Anne and Jeff VanderMeer, is something more like a master of unmaking. The substance of Amtaka is forever slipping away: The better we come to know its rules, those measures of its materiality, the more we realize they are not our own.
Vanja herself learns that fact in time, but she is almost innocent as the novel begins. When we first meet her, she has just boarded a train. Her destination, Amatka, is one of four extant colonies scattered across an unnamed world. (Once, we are…