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Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel 'We' (1921) is considered the godfather of the modern dystopia, preceding both 'Brave New World' and 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. But the book still holds its own as a highly original work of modernist science-fiction and socialist satire, not least because of its vividly expressionistic style, which fits the story perfectly.

The complicated publication history of 'We' stands as a measure of its effective satire. Written in 1920, the book was banned in Soviet Russia. Working became impossible for Zamyatin, and he finally went into exile ten years later. (He wrote a very brave letter to Stalin and was given special permission to leave.) Meanwhile translations of 'We' appeared in English, Czech and French. The first complete Russian edition appeared in 1952, but it wouldn't be until 1988 that the book was published in the Soviet Union.

George Orwell reviewed 'We' in 1946 based on the French version, and "pinched the plot" a few years later in his own 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. Aldous Huxley had apparently never read 'We' when he wrote 'Brave New World' (1932), which also contains striking similarities. As Zamyatin later commented, it "proves that these ideas are in the stormy air we breathe."

More obscurely, in Dutch literature F. Bordewijk seems to have been inspired by Zamyatin for his novella 'Blocks' ('Blokken', 1931), an exercise in his 'reinforced concrete' style which closely resembles the world of 'We'.

mathematically infallible happiness

'We' is the diary of D-503, citizen of the future One State where names have been replaced by numbers. D-503 works as a mathematician on a rocketship called the Integral, which is set to colonize space and bring the "beneficent yoke of reason" and "mathematically infallible happiness" to the as yet unknown creatures of other worlds. He in fact starts his diary responding to a call for written praise to the One State, to be sent out on the Integral.

Exemplifying the concept of totalitarianism, the One State regulates and rationalizes every aspect of the life of its "numbers", from work and leisure to sex and even down to the prescribed number of times food should be chewed (50). Its ideology can be summarized as collectivist Taylorism, where the individual is no more than a tiny, disposable cog in the frightfully efficient state machine.

The State rationalizes its rule with the philosophical idea of the incompatibility of freedom and happiness - where of course the State has decided happiness to be the preferred option. For example, reflecting on the "grandiose mechanical ballet" of the Integral's construction site, D-503 writes:

Why is all this beautiful? Why is this dance beautiful? The answer was: because this was nonfree motion, because all of the profound meaning of the dance lay precisely in absolute, aesthetic submissiveness, in ideal nonfreedom.

D-503's internalized praise of the One State recalls the technological idealization of modernist movements of the early 20st century like futurism, but it also remarkably foreshadows the totalitarianism of Stalinist Russia.

But from the very beginning D-503's extreme rationalism is subverted by irrational emotions and the wild, dangerous idea of freedom. Zamyatin introduces this subversion of D-503's mathematical worldview in a beautiful, subtle image.

Spring. From beyond the Green Wall, from the wild plains that lie out of sight, the wind brings the honeyed yellow pollen of certain flowers. The lips become dry from this pollen; you run your tongue over them every minute or so and, in all probability, all the women you come across have sweet lips now (which must hold true of the men also, of course). This interferes with logical thinking, to some extent.

Soon after this, he meets a woman, E-330, who will introduce him to a secret world of underground resistance and wild men beyond the Green Wall. Throughout the novel, Zamyatin plays with colors, associating different characters with specific colors, and it is no coincidence that E-330 is yellow - like the pollen from the wilderness.

For 21st century readers, the ensuing story of how D-503 must choose between his loyalty to the One State and his love for E-330, between his rational mind and his irrational feelings, between conformity to the State and individual freedom, will follow a familiar pattern - it has in fact become a cliché of dystopian fiction. And when the One State introduces a "fantasectomy", operating its numbers to cure them of their imagination, and cracking down on the unrest, we know things will end badly for the naïve narrator.

(Recent translations include two footnotes in which Zamyatin creates a rather ironic extra fictional layer. Signed by "Researcher 565316" of the "Venusian Bureau of Multilinguistics" they imply that D-503's manuscript indeed ended up being sent into space and deciphered by aliens. They also suggest that the One State succeeded in reinforcing its rule, perhaps even over the whole galaxy...)

However, what makes 'We' unique is the vivid first-person description of its narrator's psychological struggle, and its expressionistic, disorienting style.

the ultimate revolution

Crucially, D-503's story is told as a first-person narrative, and this limited perspective is maintained throughout. This means we never know more of what happens than he does, and we must often piece together the facts of the story from his subjective, hasty account. At the same time, D-503's development from blissful ignorance to the painful truth of the world he lives in is often too traumatic for him to fully face. For example, we suspect much earlier than D-503 himself that E-330's amourous advances may have strategic reasons for the underground resistance; after all, he is the main architect of the Integral.

In his own mathematical terminology, D-503 explains the abnormality, the unthinkability of what is happening to him by using the analogy of the irrational number of √-1.

For every equation, every formula in the superficial world there is a corresponding curve or solid. For irrational formulae, for my √-1, we know of no corresponding solids; we have never seen them. But that is precisely where the horror lies: these solids, though unseen, do exist, inevitably, ineluctably, because in mathematics, as if on a screen, their whimsical, prickly shadows - irrational formulae - pass before us: and mathematics and death are never in error. And if we do not see these solids in our universe, on the surface, there does exist - there must unescapably exist - an entire immense universe of their own there, below the surface.

As D-503's mental turmoil increases, so does the style of his diary become progressively fragmentary, cryptic and, well, primitive. What started as a rational treatise on the One State is increasingly corrupted by irrational imagery and wild associations, and chaotic curves creep into the straight, orderly lines of his thinking. Thus a sunset is a "hectic rosy eyesore" and a woman's breast "that wondrous, incalculable curve".

Zamyatin uses fragmentary images full of colors, distortions and strange details to convey D-305's feverish perception. A stylistic device he uses throughout is pars pro toto, a synecdoche where the part stands for the whole, and these often take on a life of their own. For example, when D-305 visits a doctor he is introduced as having "lips a pair of glittering scissors, his nose a knife blade". In the dialogue that follows, the simile comes to replaces the person...

The scissor-lips glittered in a smile.
'You are in a bad way! Apparently a soul has formed within you.'
A soul? That quaint, ancient, long-forgotten word... We would occasionally say soulmost, soulless, soul-destroying, but who ever used that naked word soul itself?
'Is that... very serious?' I babbled.
'Incurable!' snipped the scissors.

Here it helps to consider Zamyatin's essay 'On Literature, Revolution and Entropy' (1923), a mission statement for a new kind of urgent revolutionary literature. About the style of such literature, he says:

The old, slow, creaking descriptions are a thing of the past: today the rule is brevity - but every word must be supercharged, high-voltage. We must compress into a single second what was held before in a sixty-second minute. And hence, syntax becomes elliptic, volatile; the complex pyramids of periods are dismantled stone by stone into independent sentences. When you are moving fast, the canonised, the customary eludes the eye: hence, the unusual, often startling, symbolism and vocabulary. The image is sharp, synthetic, with a single salient feature - the one feature you will glimpse from a speeding car.

The purpose of this "supercharged, high-voltage" literature is to jolt people out of their complacency, and especially to wake artists out of their "satiated slumber". For Zamyatin, art must be revolutionary, heretic, shocking, in the same way that non-Euclidian geometry or Einstein's relativity theory forced scientists - and ultimately the rest of the world as well - to reconsider their worldview. This is all too necessary because, as Zamyatin diagnoses:

...most of mankind suffers from hereditary sleeping sickness, and victims of this sickness (entropy) must not be allowed to sleep, or it will be their final sleep, death.

With its story of enlightenment - if only briefly -, its passionate plea for painful freedom over complacent happiness and its energetic, jolting style, 'We' embodies the revolutionary literature Zamyatin envisioned. Unfortunately he was never able to continue on the course he set, but 'We' proved influential on virtually all dystopian fiction of the 20th century, in literature as well as film and music.

Considering revolutions as much a law of nature as the laws of thermodynamics, Zamyatin knew that other subversive art and shocking ideas would follow to stir up the entropic universe...

'...name the ultimate number for me.'
'What do you mean? I... I don't understand - what ultimate number?'
'Why, the ultimate, the supreme, the greatest number of all.'
'Come, E-, that's preposterous. Since the number of numbers is infinite, what number would you want to be the ultimate?'
'Well, and what revolution would you want to be the ultimate one? There is no ultimate revolution - revolutions are infinite in number. The ultimate revolution - that's for children.'

Quotes are from the 1960 translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney. The first English translation, by Gregory Zilboorg, is online in full (PDF), while several more recent translations are in print.


a sample of blocks

In the short Dutch novel "Blokken" ("Blocks") by Ferdinand Bordewijk , the main character is the State, a communist totalitarian regime. The State forbids any individualism, hence the story has no individual characters. Except in one … Read the full post »

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