Tuesday, June 23, 2020

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Dadaist dystopia
What do Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Ayn Rand’s Anthem all have in common? They all to some extent built upon ideas previously envisioned in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We. Although the history of utopian and dystopian fiction in Western literature stretches all the way back to ancient Greece, Zamyatin’s We may very well be the first work of dystopian fiction to critique the modern technological age. Zamyatin, a Russian, had to smuggle the novel out of his native land to get it published. The first edition was printed in New York in 1924. Publication of We was not allowed in the Soviet Union until 1988.

In We, Zamyatin depicts a society in which almost every of iota of individuality has been stripped from the populace. Mankind’s every action is regulated by the state in the name of cooperative efficiency, and for the most part the citizens seem to enjoy their lack of freedom. Following a catastrophic war, the remaining human race is confined to a walled city governed by the United State (not the United States, but rather an exaggerated caricature of Communist Russia). The dictator of this regime is The Well-Doer (names may vary in different translations), who is a metal machine man of some kind, never very specifically described. The lives of the numbers (citizens) are regulated under a strict time table, inspired by the industrial efficiency experiments of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915). Their sex lives are also regimented by a system of government-issued tryst vouchers. The novel is narrated by D-503, a mathematician and engineer who is leading the construction of a spaceship called the Integral. He is one of the most faithful and content devotees of the United State until he meets an unusual woman, I-330, who displays a shocking disregard for conformity. Though appalled by her independence, D-503 is irresistibly drawn to her, which causes him much emotional turmoil and shakes his faith in the state.

Zamyatin is not as good a writer as Huxley, Orwell, or Rand, but he certainly deserves an A for originality. Not only is his depiction of the future quite groundbreaking, the language in which he expresses it is equally avant garde. The prose of the novel is just as unhinged as its protagonist. D-503’s narration is a modernist stream of consciousness mingled with dream imagery and hints of mental illness. One of the more annoying aspects of Zamyatin’s writing is his repetitive use of nonsensical metaphors. D-503 denotes one character as being shaped like a letter S. Another has a head like a valise, a woman has jowls that look like gills, and a doctor reminds him of a pair of scissors. These silly descriptions are repeated tediously and are more disorienting and boring than humorous. A better example of Zamyatin’s innovation is his use of mathematical terminology to describe human behavior and emotions in a manner totally appropriate to the narrator. The mechanistic imagery and blind devotion to the machine, combined with Zamyatin’s satirical sense of humor, amounts to a literary exemplar of the Dadaist art movement.

Perhaps the least satisfying aspect of We is its love story. Though I-330 is an audacious example of an independent woman, she is depicted as a cold femme fatale, as if feminine independence were a fearfully dangerous development of the modern age. Her doormat treatment of the timid D-503 renders her unsympathetic, and one suspects she is just using him to forward her own agenda. That agenda, however, does lead the story in some exciting directions. Despite its faults, We is a truly groundbreaking work of science fiction, and one that is admirably bolder and more thought-provoking than many of its later imitators.
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