A thousand years ago your heroic forebears subjugated the whole of planet Earth to the power of OneState. It is for you to accomplish an even more glorious feat: by means of the glass, the electric, the fire-breathing INTEGRAL to integrate the indefinite equation of the universe. It is for you to place the beneficial yoke of reason around the necks of the unknown beings who inhabit other planets - still living, it may be, in the primitive state known as freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically infallible happiness, we shall be obliged to force them to be happy.
A portrait of the lit-blogger as a young girl: in my mid-teens, my favourite novel in all the world was Orwell's 1984. I read it roughly once a year, from the age of 14 until the time I left for university (yes, even - well, usually - the big chunks of political theory in the middle). I naturally also read Huxley's Brave New World, which sparked a slightly morbid running debate with a classmate (hi, Rebecca!) over which world it would be marginally better to be stuck in (I plumped for Brave New World, on the basis that not knowing you're unfree has to be better than knowing, but being utterly helpless to do anything about it; plus, happy drugs). Somewhere along the line I also hit a seam of post-apocalyptic teen fic in the school library, and gorged myself upon the grimness (in the process developing a not unnatural - if rather behind the times, given that it was the mid '90s - fear of nuclear holocaust): Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence, Plague 99 by Jean Ure, Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells... In short, I loved me some dystopia. I even won a minor prize in a national teen short story competition for a doom-laden little tale of my own (which owed shamelessly-vast amounts to Ray Bradbury's short story "The Pedestrian"). Ah, happy days...
So in many respects, future-dystopia We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), feels like a missing bit of my adolescent reading pile. First published in an English translation in 1924, it did not find a warm reception in the Zamyatin's homeland (nor indeed, did the author himself; he spent the last six years of his life in exile in France). The Russian text of the book did not appear until 1952 - and it wasn't published within Russia itself until 1988.
Like so many books with the subgenre, We posits a future in which an oppressive regime seeks to consolidate its hold on power by stripping its subjects of every vestige of their individuality (and thus, the thinking usually goes, their humanity). Its fearful prophecy is, not surprisingly, most strongly reminiscent of the ideals of the environment in which it was written: a shining, triumphal, post-revolutionary society that believes not only in human perfectability, but in the imminent advent of that perfectability - to be achieved by any means necessary. Our narrator D-503, an (initially) ardent believer in the system, describes the "mathematically perfect life" that citizens of OneState must lead - a life of absolute unison, and consequent anonymity:
Every morning, with six-wheeled precision, at the very same hour and the very same minute, we get up, millions of us, as though we were one. At the very same hour, millions of us, we start work. Later, millions as one, we stop. And then, like one body with a million hands, at one and the same second according to the Table, we lift the spoon to our lips. And at one and the same second we leave for a stroll and go to the auditorium, to the hall for the Taylor exercises, and then to bed.
Everyone lives in identical dwellings: home is a transparent glass cube - not owned, of course, merely inhabited - stacked below and atop many others in immense tower blocks:
To the right and to the left through the glass walls I see something like my own self, my own room, my own clothes, my own movements, and all repeated a thousand times. It cheers you up: You see yourself as part of an immense, powerful, single thing.
D-503 cherishes this unity, this lack of individuality. It offers, after all, order, security, belonging: absolution from the need to make decisions or take responsibility. Individuality and originality, the system teaches, are arrogant and dangerous - antiquated concepts that foster inequality and preclude a properly happy life. D-503 sees (or tries to) no divide between himself and his fellow citizens, aiming to record, "what I think - or, to be more exact, what we think (that's right, we; and let this WE be the title of these records)."
But while it is clearly a satire of contemporary Soviet aims and propaganda, We's reach is much broader than this. Rather, it examines how totalitarian oppression creates its own justifications, growing by apparently reasonable increments - until it exists primarily as a state of mind within the oppressed themselves, embattled and terrified of the insecurity of freedom. Like Oceania's endless fake wars in 1984, or the "uncivilised" reservation of Malpais in Brave New World, Zamyatin's OneState has invented its own demons to excuse and reinforce its rigidity. In their glass houses, citizens are on show to all eyes at all times (except on "Sex Days", when they get to lower the blinds for an hour for a spot of pre-booked, state-permitted (non)intimacy) - but this, they tell themselves, is entirely right and necessary for the stability and safety of all who live in OneState. After all, only those with something to hide, some nefarious agenda, could possibly champion privacy (emphasis mine):
[W]e live in broad daylight inside these walls that seem to have been fashioned out of bright air, always on view. We have nothing to hide from one another. Besides, this makes it easier for the Guardians to carry out their burdensome, noble task. No telling what might go on otherwise.
Sound familiar...? Similarly, the INTEGRAL spaceship's expressed missionising intent - "we're coming to make your life divinely rational and precise, like ours" - chimes as much with current adventures in Iraq as with the ideal of international Communist revolution.
Surrender individual choice, OneState propaganda says, and let go of all the suffering that stems from it. Or, as one character puts it:
"The old legend about Paradise - that was about us, about right now. Yes! Just think about it. Those two in Paradise, they were offered a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness, nothing else. Those idiots chose freedom. And then what? Then for centuries they were homesick for the chains. That's why the world was so miserable, see? [...] We helped God finally overcome the Devil - because that's who it was that pushed people to break the commandment and taste freedom and be ruined. It was him, the wily serpent. But we gave him a boot to the head! Crack! And it was all over: Paradise was back. And we're simple and innocent again, like Adam and Eve."
No good can come of man making his own destiny; for his own good, destiny must be made for him, by a nebulous dictator figure referred to as "the Benefactor", who is handed "the keys of the unshakable fortress of our happiness" by an annual "election" - i.e. by rote public acclamation, without that messy choice nonsense:
They say the ancients somehow carried out their elections in secret, hiding like thieves. [...] But we have nothing to hide or be ashamed of; we celebrate our elections openly, honestly, in the daylight. I see how everybody votes for the Benefactor and everybody sees how I vote for the Benefactor. And how else could it be, since everybody and I add up to the one We?
The only blip, D-503 notes, lies in the "Personal Hours" - the two hours per day when people are allowed to pursue their own interests (within limits, of course). People are not happy when they are free; undirected by a higher authority, they are adrift. Furthermore, there is no telling what they might get up to, given the opportunity. It is this fear that underlies a new initiative that we see being pioneered during the timespan covered by the novel, the "Great Operation" intended to, essentially, lobotomise people: the surgical removal of their capacity for imagination.
Naturally, D-503's certainty is shaken; he meets an unusually free-spirited woman, I-330, who leads him down the path of temptation and subversion. (Men are designated by consonants, women by vowels; I don't know if it's just a quirk of translation, but the fact that I-330's letter is "I" is certainly apt...). At times, this is rather clumsily expressed - D-503 spends an awful lot of time thinking cliched thoughts about lips, and his epiphanies tend to happen rather abruptly and be brimming with the obvious (although it's to be expected, given his stunted-by-oppression personality) - but the impact upon him, sending him into a complete tail-spin, is explored in a nicely fractured and often quite humourous way.
The book is a little too thin and too prone to burlesque, its language a little too stilted, to have quite the kick of, say, 1984. But Zamyatin's short, episodic chapters generate genuine tension as D-503 spirals deeper into a new and to-him thoroughly-unpleasant frame of mind - love (or, as the rebels he meets repeatedly call it, a soul).
The ensuing conflict between his new individuality and the dictates of society threatens D-503's sanity and, of course, attracts the attention of the authorities. Ultimately, he is taken away for the Great Operation to remove his imagination, his "soul". (And my inner teenager remembers precisely what she most adored about this sort of book - draw your own conclusions!). But the ending is far from wholly bleak - no revolution, we are reminded, is the final revolution...