Book Review – ‘We’: Yevgeny Zamyatin

My blog will now include reviews of books relevant to the endeavour of thinking for yourself and teaching children to do the same.

The place to start is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s sparkling, terrifying, portrait of a society committed to “mathematically infallible happiness”; preparing to launch a rocket towards “alien planets” – to either deliver this happiness, or “force them to be happy”.

The author was arrested, aged 21, as a Bolshevik student activist in 1905 by Tsarist police, kept in solitary and exiled. After the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, Zamyatin was arrested by the new authorities both in 1919 and 1922.

He wrote We in 1920, amid the transformation of Russia after the Revolution: “1920 was perched at the dawn of film, radio, and the automobile. It was also the year the word robot came into being (originating in the Russian and Czech word rabotat’, which means to “work”). The Bolsheviks with their militaristic, urban-centric, industrial aggression were conquering all of Russia.” (Natasha Randall, Introduction to We, 2006)

An engineer himself, Zamyatin observed technological advances and transformed them in his vision of a highly efficient society, 600 years in the future, in which the authorities sacrifice citizens using “the fission of the atoms of the human body”. His workers’ lives reflect experiments that were happening at the Soviet Central Institute of Labour in 1920 – attempts to turn workers into human robots.

Zamyatin’s prose style can feel crazy. He aimed to write in the essential, fragmentary, ‘language of thought’ rather than the ‘old slow creaking descriptions…of the past’. We jump from moment to moment by association and thus enter into the mind of an orthodox cipher of the One State who finds himself falling in love with a member of the underground resistance. He speaks as an orthodox citizen; whilst drifting further and further into forbidden emotion and mental – as well as physical – ramblings. He writes his confession for the benefit of the State and in doing so reveals the depth of himself, without gaining conscious insight.

The narrator is strange: a mathematician who thinks in numbers; in whose mind sounds are coloured. There is some speculation about whether Zamyatin had synesthesia (a condition where stimulation of one pathway in the brain leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway). Hence the symbols of the book enable the narrator to convey his state of mind without having to articulate it. For instance, his fondness for a conventional woman named 0, is safe, known and permitted, but also empty; he fears the ‘irrational’ square root of -1: ‘This irrational root had sunk into me like something foreign, alien, frightening.’

Huxley and Orwell stole a lot from Zamyatin. Orwell reviewed We in 1946 after struggling to get hold of it. In his review there is much comparison with Brave New World; you get the sense Orwell himself was getting ideas for 1984 (published 1949). Orwell  argues that Zamyatin’s political insight is greater than Huxley’s, he suggests Zamyatin’s portrait of a mindless comfortable society was not so much a satire of the early Soviet state as “a comment on the implied aims of industrial civilisation.”

But then, as Solzhenitsyn documented, “by the spring of 1918 a torrent of socialist traitors had already begun” to be arrested. (Gulag Archipelago, 1976) So the book could have been about enforced political orthodoxy.

In many ways, We is better than 1984. Zamyatin captures his character’s combination of blindness and intense human feeling. His character’s love for a mysterious woman is convincingly crippling, all-encompassing and confusing; Winston’s emotions in 1984 are, by comparison, somewhat distant.

One of the things Orwell notices is that the characters of We live in glass apartments; he explains “this was written before television was invented”. In 1984, Orwell replaces glass walls with telescreens that keep watch over citizens. But glass is an important symbol for Zamyatin: “we live in full view, perpetually awash with light, in among our transparent walls, woven from sparkling air.” Mired in an unorthodox secret life, the narrator longs for openness.

For Zamyatin, glass equals openness; wiling orthodoxy; the “instinct for non-freedom”; a human being’s longing to submit to external control.

You could say, Zamyatin’s glass city captures what the Chinese state plan to achieve using the internet. In a recent article on China’s use of the internet, John Lanchester argues that “China is about to become something new: an AI-powered techno-totalitarian state. The project aims to form not only a new kind of state but a new kind of human being, one who has fully internalised the demands of the state and the completeness of its surveillance and control.” (LRB, 10 October, 2019)

We are not immune in the UK. As Lanchester outlines, we have all the same technology ourselves: “It wouldn’t be a Dr Evil move on the part of Western democracies to access all the new information; they would just take it because it was there, because it suddenly became available.”

Zamyatin knew that humans can easily be manipulated by a totalitarian state and he knew something more frightening – we like it.

Zamyatin’s response to the revolutions of his time was to describe perfectly how humans watch and control each other; also how we long to abandon our individuality, to be controlled.

 

 

 

If you know of any other dystopia, science fiction or speculative fiction I might be interested in, please get in touch! 

 

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