Friday, November 4, 2011

"We" Are in Trouble

A review of the novel "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The future is looking bleak. Powerful institutions are gaining an even stronger hold on society. People are retreating further into apathy, accepting whatever they are told. Free thinkers are being marginalized. Automatons are gaining strength. No, this isn’t a cynical diatribe about life in 21st Century America, although it very well could be. Rather, it’s the overarching theme of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel, “We.”

I’ve put off reading this classic science fiction novel for some time, and on a recent trip to Europe, I finally dug into it. I cannot recall the last time I read a historical work of literature that spoke so clearly and prophetically about the future. Zamyatin’s dystopian view of society is so real, so vivid and so complex that it’s uncanny to think it was written in Russia 90 years ago.

In the world of “We,” society is dominated by the great “Benefactor,” a mysterious, elusive source of repressive dictates. The citizens have ceded their power to this “Benefactor” and his benevolent OneState, which controls the minutiae of everyday life. Society is structured according to the theory of “mathematically infallible happiness,” that monopolistic power can and must determine the life it decides is best for its people.

No one has a name, only a number. Imagination has been all but destroyed through propaganda, violence and, eventually, forced lobotomies. Sex is regulated according to a system of hormone tests that determine how much sex people need. “Pink tickets” are handed out to each person based on their hormone levels, and these tickets are then exchanged with their sexual partners. (There are no booty calls in OneState. Talk about a depressing future.)

The narrator has some number that I don’t remember and didn’t write down. He’s so loyal to OneState that he is the chief engineer behind a technological project to spread OneState’s ideology to alien planets. He is working on a spacecraft that will explore the galazy for life forms in order to preach the gospel of OneState to them. The narrative takes the form of a journal and something of a missionary pamphlet on how great OneState and the Benefactor truly are. The narrator is a faithful follower of the Benefactor. He doesn’t “like or understand jokes.” He respects authority and law for its own sake. He doesn’t drink (which is illegal), and he doesn’t think.

That is, of course, until our monotone narrator meets the sexy, rebellious I-1330. Yes, he falls in love with her, and, yes, he has a change of heart and mind. But it’s a long and arduous process of realizing how to think and function outside of the system. Once he drinks and has sex with I-1330, he deems himself “sick” and “done for.” Liberation of the body and mind is, to the narrator, akin to self-destruction.

I won’t give away the ending, but it’s magnificent, like that last loop on a speeding rollercoaster that leaves you out of breath.

The story behind “We” is equally as intriguing as the story itself. It was written in Russian, though it appeared first in English. Only in 1988 did people living in the Soviet Union get the chance to pick up this novel in its original Russian. If you give a rat’s ass about history and politics, and have even a remote interest in science fiction, this book is a must have. I am an idiot for taking this long to read it.

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