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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.


How's about that then?

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.

The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly …

Under The Dust by Jordi Coca

So, wheel of fortune, count to 29, pin the tail, freebies off of peeps on Twitter etc. etc. Whatever the methods sometimes employed to pick the next book in my intertextual experience, the one that brought me to Jordi Coca brought me to a whopping great slice of nostalgia. Before I'd even opened it, it brought to mind Richard Gwyn, himself a published poet, author, biographer, translator and course director of the MA Creative Writing course at Cardiff University, who I recall for some odd reason gently encouraging me to read this novel, and by whose own work I was quietly impressed at the time. He was also an advocate of Roberto Bolaño, another writer in whose work I can immerse myself but from which I emerge drained, as mentioned previously. Before that, though, there is this sticker on the front, declaring 'Signed by the Author at Waterstone's'. It is indeed signed by Jordi Coca, not adding any particular intrinsic value to the book, not for me anyway, but more impor…

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, Jo…

Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…