(The Land of Sleep)
by Henna Johansdotter
reviewed by Sophie Ruthven
The events of Sömnlandet take place five hundred years after a bloody and brutal war between men and women that resulted in a permanent segregation of the population into the two halves of the planet. One half for men, one for women, and zero contact between them. All the inhabitants of the male half know about the women is that having been used for many years as living vessels for the generation of an unnamed biological weapon, this half of humanity suddenly made an evolutionary leap past men and took revenge on their former oppressors, decisively winning the bloody war and building a barrier to keep them forever at bay. The seven provinces of men are not only barred from crossing this barrier but must also pay tax to the women for eternity. The men are ruled by a supposed democracy, yet in reality this is a system rife with inherited power and newcomer-hostile structures. Worse still is the forced removal of any person who doesn’t conform to the of-the-minute definitions of what defines ‘maleness’. And then there’s the terrifying Sleep: an infectious disease which seems to spread at random, affecting old and young alike. There is no known cure, and it stalks the lives of the whole global population. Some even see it not as a disease, but a symptom of a world going nowhere, where people have simply given up. But do the women have the cure?
As with any good sci-fi, the relatability of the human side of things needs to shine through imaginative world-building, and Sömnlandet does not disappoint here. Through Nolan and Lum’s relationship especially, we see the effect authoritarian systems have on private and public feelings and actions. Sexual relationships between those deemed male are the norm in this world of course — there’s no other option — and yet the types of relationship that exist are still hierarchised, with relationships based on temporary companionship far below at the bottom. Sex workers provide an essential service yet are subject to abuse and aversion. Their bodies, as well as those seen as impossible to fit into the hard binary laws of a divided world are either the subject of frequent violent threats (as is true for Nolan) or eradicated completely (those that do not pass the so-called ‘purity test’). This speaks volumes about the suppressed distress of a world in artificial division and forced order. Nolan’s province manages to maintain its glamourous image only by ruthlessly cutting out anyone who doesn’t pass their suitability and health tests and exploiting the other six provinces for resources, ensuring high living standards and health in the centre and misery and poverty elsewhere, albeit to different levels. Sömnlandet’s version of the future may be fantastical, but its prejudices and injustices are certainly not.
A novel full of an intriguing combination of ideas and themes, at times it nevertheless seemed to me unable to choose between the two main plot features: the pandemic of Sleep and the election campaign spearheaded by Lum that is the driving force behind Nolan’s life changing course dramatically. In fact, the disease fades almost completely into background knowledge whilst the drama of the middle section unravels. This may be intentional and unremarkable to some readers, yet it did at times feel like the two great ideas were slightly unable to compete with one another.
In general, Sömnlandet is enjoyable: a bold concept where how human bodies and mental health fare under oppression is examined in a fully believable world which, whilst carving a distinct niche for itself, would perhaps really appeal to fans of the film Divergent. The novel’s futuristic design and technology innovations, personal names of ambiguous origin and questioning of what it means to be a good human make it inherently translatable out of the Nordic context of its original language and into English and leave all readers with the reminder that you don’t 'need to have done something big to be human.'
Foreign rights: The author holds the rights to the work, and can be contacted via the publisher.
Henna Johansdotter was born in 1994 and lives in Vaasa. Apart from fiction, she is into writing obscene poetry, drawing and metal music. She debuted in 2019 with Glasvaggen (The Glass Cradle) which won the Granberg-Sumeliuska prize of the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland (SLS). Sömnlandet is her second novel.