February Books 5) We/Мы

5) We/Мы, by Yevgeny Zamyatin/Евгений Иванович Замятин.

From Darko Suvin’s entry on the author in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

Мы (written 1920, circulated in manuscript; trans Gregory Zilboorg as We 1924 US; first Russian-language book publication 1952 US) deals with the relation between the principles of Revolution (life) and Entropy (death). By incorporating elements of Островитяне (written 1917; 1922 chap; trans Sophie Fuller and Julian Sacchi as the title story in Islanders, and Ловец человеков [coll 1984 chap UK]), a satirical novella he had written about UK philistinism (which features coupons for rationing sex, and the “Taylorite” regulation of every moment of the day), YZ signalled his intention to extrapolate upon the repressive potentials of every centralized state.

Committed to the scientific method even in his narrative form, which mimics lab notes, YZ’s explanation for why rationalism turns sour is mythical: every belief, when victorious, must turn repressive, as did Christianity. The only irrational elements remaining are the human beings who deviate: these include the narrator – a mathematician and designer of a rocket ship – and the woman who represents an underground resistance. The plot is modelled on an inevitable Fall (for the rebellion inevitably fails), ending in an ironic crucifixion. In YZ’s terms, Мы judges yesterday’s utopia, as it becomes an absolutism, in the name of tomorrow’s utopia – for the principle of utopia itself is not repudiated; the book is thus not a dystopia.

The expressionistic language of Мы, which imparts a sense of elegant but humanly charged economy to the text, helps to subsume the protagonist’s defeat under the novel’s concern for the integration of humanity’s science and art (including love). YZ demonstrates that utopia should not be a new religion (albeit of mathematics and space flights) but should represent the dynamic horizon of mankind’s developing personality.

Мы is the paradigmatic anti-utopia, prefiguring George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and superseding that tradition of utopianism, from Sir Thomas More on, which ignores technology and anthropology. By analysing the distortions of the utopia through the hyperbolic prism of sf, YZ wrote an intensely practical text. It is both a masterpiece of sf and an indispensable book of our epoch. This sense of the book was finally confirmed by YZ’s rehabilitation in the USSR in the glasnost year 1988.

Myself, I was very impressed by this book. He really did anticipate the totalitarian societies later fleshed out by Orwell and Huxley, but unlike them we have a first person narrator and a real counter-revolutionary movement. Apart from the grand sweep of the narrative, a couple of little things stood out for me: first, the short chapters represent diary entries, headed by a list of topics covered in each – one reviewer compares these to laboratory notes, but in fact I think they are much more like blog entries, anticipating a phenomenon of eighty years later. Second, the narrator’s first encounter with the natural world outside the city is the sort of descriptive passage that has been badly written by many inferior writers (“There’s this big blue room, right, and you can’t see the ceiling because it’s so far away and there’s this really bright yellow light…”) but Zamyatin does it very effectively.

When Orwell and Huxley wrote 1984 and Brave New World, they already had the real life experiences of the totalitarian Soviet Union (and in Orwell’s case also the Third Reich) to draw on. Zamyatin, writing in St Petersburg in 1920, was still writing about the totalitarian state as a possible future, not as a present or past phenomenon. It didn’t do him any good, of course; Stalin entirely got the point, banned his works and eventually exiled him. It’s intriguing that the two stories which he cannibalised to write Мы were both inspired to an extent by his experience of working in Britain during the first world war – this ties him in even more closely to Huxley and Orwell.

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