Readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 -- and fans of Logan's Run and Brazil -- won't be surprised by the broad-brush outlines of the plot. Mathematician D-503 (no names here) is living in the perfect collectivist world, and is happily working towards humanity's greatest achievement: a huge rocket called the Integral that will bring mankind's well-ordered lifestyle to the stars. Archaic concepts like freedom and individuality were bred out of humanity thousands of years ago. But what happens when he meets I-330, an alluring woman who has some frustratingly outdated ideas about life? And why does he start seeing the word "MEPHI" scrawled in graffiti on the walls of his perfect city?
I had to pause quite a few times to marvel that "We" was written in the late 19-teens, long before so many of these sci-fi tropes were set in stone. Zamyatin's protagonist is writing a day-by-day account of his life to be stored aboard the Integral and be read by the surely primitive beings on other worlds. The alienness of his society is conveyed by the fact that most adjectives (and other descriptions of what D-503 sees around him) don't contain cultural references, but instead refer to Kandinskian abstractions like pure colors, geometrical shapes, and mathematical concepts. In stark contrast to all this rationality is the ever-present diary format, which is meant to be raw and unedited. Often there are sentences that just trail off with no resolution, allowing the imagination to....
Many cautionary future tales suffer from the weakness of being too heavy-handed -- so much so that you can't quite picture how anyone let it happen, or how anyone manages to carry on living day after day. But Zamyatin conveys some of its appeal. The people aren't the hypnotized drones you might expect. Most of them live engaged, stress-free lives in a world in which they are living out their purpose. I've got to say that I was a bit hypnotized by the ordered bliss at times! Of course, every few pages the protagonist would contrast his perfect world with the ancient, barbaric chaos of liberty, and the reader is immediately reminded of what's coming. Maybe I'm just a sucker for mathematically ordered music:
"Crystal chromatic degrees converging and diverging in infinite sequences and the summarizing chords of Taylor and Maclaurin formulae with a gait like Pythagorean pant-legs, so whole-toned and quadrilateral-heavy; the melancholy melodies of diminishing oscillations; pauses producing bright rhythms according to Frauenhofer lines, the spectral analysis of planets... What magnificence! What unwavering predictability! And how pitiful that whimsical music of the Ancients, delimited by nothing except wild fantasy..."It kind of reminds me of Hermann Hesse's futuristic realm of Castalia in The Glass Bead Game -- i.e., inhabitants living a sparkling inner mental life, while being surrounded by social conditions that we'd find stifling and unacceptable.
Although there are some parts of the novel that drag on a bit, there are some truly original insights and ideas. I won't spoil the ending, but I can say that, in a way, it's more intriguing than the endings of all the dystopian books and movies I mentioned above. I'm glad I found this novel, and I highly recommend it as an alternative if you're considering dipping back into Orwell or Huxley yet again.
|"We" have assumed control.|