Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

Published: Penguin, 1993
Translated: Clarence Brown, 1993

Before 1984, before Brave New World, the first great science fiction dystopia was Zamyatin's We. Written soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, before Soviet censorship became really brutal under Stalin, it was nevertheless impossible to publish in Russia, and first appeared in English translation in the States. This meant it became well known in the West, unusually for genre fiction in translation, and though not now as famous to the English-speaking reader as Huxley and Orwell, it was known to both writers and a strong influence on the latter in particular.

The narrator of We, D-503, is running the project to build a spaceship to carry the philosophy of OneState (previously translated as United State, a version rejected by Brown because of the obvious confusion it causes). He becomes obsessed with rebellious beauty I-330, even though love has been outlawed by OneState hundreds of years ago, and this leads him to doubt the certainties that once underpinned his life, until his erratic behaviour culminates in failing to take part in the last step in the scientific perfection of humanity: the surgical removal of the faculty of imagination.

The parallels with 1984 are obvious; the plots are even quite similar (substitute Winston and Julia for D-503 and I-330). However, Winston becomes a stronger dissident than D-503, who, even at the climactic moment believes that the secret police are a force for good, and that the torture they carry out is different from the work of the Inquisition of history because the OneState torturers are good, while the Inquisition was evil. This inability to ditch early condition seems to me to be entirely believable. However much conditioning is undermined, it will leave a trace, some parts of behaviour and belief will still be influenced or even determined by early training.

Additionally, class was important to Orwell in a way that was irrelevant to Zamyatin: Orwell makes Julia and Winston obsessed by the Proles (as opposed to party members, which is what they are) to make points of his own, while in OneState there appears to be no divide between citizens. This influences the way that they use something common to both writers, and to Huxley as well: the role of the outsider in their dystopia. Huxley's Savage is brought up in a Reservation. Beyond the Green Wall that forms OneState's border is a world populated by (it is believed) savages. It is possible to imagine dystopias where there are no outsiders, where rebellion is spontaneous in some way, but the only example that immediately comes to mind is the much less literary Earth of Blake's Seven, where injustice spurs Roj Blake into action. In 1984 and Brave New World the question of why such outsiders are permitted to exist is a little problematic, though it is less so in We; even here, it is a little odd that a culture that is building a space ship is unable to expand through the Green Wall.

The two topics, conditioning and outsiders, are closely related, as, generally, the seed that produces the idea in the hero which leads to rebellion comes from these people (who more easily prompt thoughts along the lines of "Things would be better if..."), a device which allows the author to concentrate on matters more directly relevant to the themes they wish to develop. The growth of this seed is of course the reason why the perfect citizen of OneState has hadtheir imagination surgically removed. What none of them foresaw, not even Orwell whose dystopia gave a major role to media manipulation, was a world like the West today, where imagination is not stifled but channelled, more interested in the minute details of today's top reality show than the politics driving a war in Iraq described as disastrous by one of its key supporters.

What is particularly powerful about We is the way that the poverty of D-503's life is depicted as the narrator himself moves towards knowledge of this state, and the way that he becomes confused when the basis of his deeply held (if artificially produced) inner convictions begins to crumble. He becomes separate from those around him - the "we" of the title is, as Brown points out in his introduction, not the people as a community, for they have no real community, but the "royal we" of the Benefactor, the ruler of OneState.

We is a fascinating novel, particularly to a Western reader more familiar with Huxley and Orwell.

NOTE: Edited 24/12/2006 to remove a small factual error.

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