In a perfect world
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s far-out science fiction dystopia, `We,’ showed the way for George Orwell and countless others.
By Joshua Glenn
IT IS WITH REGRET that I see, instead of an orderly and strict mathematical epic poem in honor of the One State-I see some kind of fantastic adventure novel emerging from me.” So laments D-503, mathematician and rocket designer, halfway through Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel “We.” Completed in 1921, but not published in Russia until 1988, half a century after Zamyatin’s death, it appears this month from the Modern Library in a new English translation by Natasha Randall.
Zamyatin’s vision of a totally controlled society, one in which unresisting citizens eat, sleep, work, and make love like clockwork-and in which thinkers and writers sing the glories of “the morning buzz of electric toothbrushes and . . . the intimate peal of the crystal-sparkling latrine”-was considered too dangerously satirical by the early Soviet state, and it was smuggled abroad in samizdat form. Written a decade before Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” its influence can be seen in George Orwell’s “1984,” and it has been hailed as a warning of the totalitarian dangers inherent in every utopian scheme. (Orwell, who believed Huxley had read “We,” wrote in 1946, three years before “1984″ was published, that Zamyatin’s “intuitive grasp of the irrational side of totalitarianism-human sacrifice, cruelty as an end in itself” made the novel “superior to Huxley’s.”)
A Bolshevik student activist in the years before the 1917 revolution, Zamyatin went on to become an engineer and ship designer, and only started writing to pass the time when the Tsarist police exiled him from St. Petersburg. Yet despite his youthful Bolshevism, Zamyatin-like Boris Pasternak, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Anna Akhmatova, and other independent Russian writers of the Soviet era-despised authoritarian communism. In an essay written at the same time as “We,” he castigated critics who demanded that writers be subservient to the Party. “There shall be no more polyphony or dissonances,” he warned. “There shall only be majestic, monumental, all-encompassing unanimity.”
Without a doubt, Zamyatin’s far-out narrative, set in a city-state cut off from a depopulated Earth by an impenetrable glass dome, is anti-totalitarian. Extrapolating from the over-heated rhetoric of Communist planners who believed that mankind would profit if American scientific-management techniques (like those of Frederick W. Taylor and Henry Ford) were extended into every sphere of daily life, Zamyatin has D-503 rhapsodize about “the mathematically perfect life of the One State,” where nothing spontaneous is permitted.
But is “We” really an anti-utopian novel? From today’s perspective, it looks as though “We,” like Huxley’s “Brave New World,” is less a rejection of utopianism than a jeremiad against the creeping of industrial standardization into politics, culture, and every other aspect of modern life.
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In his 2005 book “Picture Imperfect,” social critic Russell Jacoby describes a group of writers he calls “blueprint utopians”-idealists such as Thomas More, Condorcet, Enfantin, Edward Bellamy, and others who devised solutions to the social problems of their own eras by mapping out the future in inches and minutes, giving precise instructions for how men and women should work and live, and not hesitating to prescribe force against dissenters.
The One State described by Zamyatin does bear a close resemblance to these imagined social orders. “We” describes a rigid world of efficiency and perfection, one in which individuals (called “ciphers”) are issued numbers instead of names and are nurtured by Taylorist systems from childhood. The One State is ruled by a Benefactor, who is automatically voted in every year, and watched over by spying Guardians, who ensure that nothing unexpected ever happens; those ciphers who do fall out of step (literally) are whisked away to the Gas Bell Jar.
This state of “mathematically infallible happiness” (as the One State’s official newspaper describes it) is considered by its citizens to be a revolutionary improvement on the chaotic condition of freedom humankind once knew. War has been banished along with quarreling nation-states; hunger and poverty have been eradicated through collectivism; and even sexual jealousy has been vanquished via an equitable system of distribution in which “each cipher has the right to any other cipher as sexual product.”
D-503, who has started a journal intended for use as propaganda on newly colonized planets, is full of enthusiasm. He soliloquizes about the mandatory afternoon walk, when uniformed workers march along in rows of four, “rapturously keeping step.” He even boasts of a pioneering new medical procedure, the excision of the imagination via brain surgery (in his case, this is unnecessary).
But then D-503 falls in love-seduced by a beautiful revolutionary, I-330, who wants to hijack his rocket ship and overthrow the government. I-330’s effect on D-503 is explosive. A personality so tightly wound that he remembers being frightened of irrational numbers as a child, D-503 suddenly finds himself in “a world of square roots of minus one.” Alas, the plot fails, I-330 ends up in the Gas Bell Jar, and D-503 is subjected to the imagination-cauterizing operation.
But not before I-330 succeeds in converting him, if only momentarily, into a champion of spontaneity and freedom of individual choice. She does so by arguing against the received wisdom that the utopian revolution that resulted in the founding of the One State was necessarily the final revolution. Speaking in D-503’s own language of mathematical philosophy, she asks him, “What is the final number?” When he responds that the number of numbers is infinite, she argues that revolutions should be infinite, too-not exactly an anti-utopian sentiment. She leaves open the possibility of ever-improving worlds to come.
I-330 agrees with D-503 that their ancestors were right to invent a more equitable social order. “They made only one mistake,” she says. “Afterward they believed that they were the final number-which doesn’t exist in the natural world, it just doesn’t.”
Joshua Glenn is the Globe’s Living Arts web editor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.