Wednesday, 19 June 2013

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin



This machine kills Fascists too.
I wondered for a few years about reading this book. Had it not been free to download I may still be wondering. I've read all of Jules Verne and lots of H.G Wells (mostly pre-1900s stuff), and whilst their sci-fi output is, almost without fail, worthy of great praise, they bore the arse off me with their high Victorian style. Although this was written and published in the 1920s*, I was expecting a faithful rendering of Well's yawn-inspiring verbosity. Thankfully, florid subjectivist descriptions of colour aside, he does manage to produce what is a thoroughly readable dystopian novel.

An Old Bolshevik, Zamyatin, we're told, was deeply disturbed by the naughty goings on of Soviets post-1918. In retrospect he had good reason given the amount of Bolshies who died in mysterious circumstances or were shipped off to the Urals or Siberian Gulags by the even naughtier Stalinists. In fact, he himself was exiled twice, before successfully petitioning Stalin to allow him to voluntarily exile himself in 1931 - the alternative was not worth thinking about. Quite why he kept returning to the Soviet Union is another matter. 

Enough potted history! We, one may assume, came about because Zamyatin was also a dissident, wary of the police state, of censorship, authoritarianism and autocracy. On his return to Russian soil in 1917 he edited translated novels by H.G. Wells amongst others and if Kurt Vonnegut is to be believed, continued a noble tradition of ripping off the work of his predecessor, taken up by both Aldous Huxley and Vonnegut himself**. Indeed, it appears to share many similarities with Wells' dystopian visions. Orwell and Huxley clearly owe a great debt of gratitude to Zamyatin's gentle theft. As does Ayn Rand, but the less said of that the better.

What we have here is a far-future where the autocratic Well-Doer of the one United State rules life inside a glass walled citadel, where residents are happy because they are not free. Life is set to the minute, sex snuck in behind curtains, the drawing of which requires a permit (and lasts only 20 minutes). D-503, mathematician and begrudging poet, builder of the great civilizing space rocket Integral, takes the reader on a bumpy ride through the city during a particularly hairy time for all concerned, where a dissident group called Mephi (for Mephistopheles) plans to upset the balance and throw off the yoke of an organised happiness by stealing and smashing said rocket into the city. D-503 is drawn into the plot by the beguiling and mysterious I-330 (it's always the way, dick leads brain) much to the chagrin of rotund O-90, his registered partner. Push comes to shove and the state orders the lobotomization of the entire populace in order to remove irreverent and distracting fancy, catalyst for the desire for freedom and thus chaos and doom.

Not a lot else to read into that really, is there? Certainly, one could spot Jungian archetypal theories, European Expressionism, an attack on scientific socialism, and so forth, but in essence, we have a thrilling if obvious (from a modern reading perspective) cautionary tale, not least because *SPOLIER - LOOK AWAY NOW* D-503 finishes his narrative as a happily lobotomized citizen with only a vague curiosity as to his previous flighty behaviour, as evidenced in the pages before him that he wrote in the grip of so-called fancy. 

As an occasional sci-fi fan, I am very glad I got to read this, not least because it lead me to rediscover the Vonnegut interview below. It's always good to know your roots, and Zamyatin is clearly embedded deep in the genre; his influence continues despite many people having never heard of him. Hopefully, you might now know who he is and feel the need to share it.


After being the first book banned, in 1921, by the Soviet Censorship bureau, it didn't see the light of the cold, Russian day until 1988; Zamyatin snuck it past the censors in Prague from whence it trickled back into Russia to great furor and the eventual exile of the author to Paris, where he died of a heart attack, and, as is the way with authors in Paris, destitute. And probably drunk.

** I am delighted to have found a scanned copy of the 1973 Playboy interview in which Vonnegut says, of Player Piano, that he, "cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We." And here it is.



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