Thursday 23 June 2011

"We" is Bigger Than "I" in Zamyatin's Dystopian World

Before George Orwell, Anthony Burgess
Ray Bradbury, and Aldus Huxley, there was the pioneer of the dystopian novel. The first man who wrote a shocking novel about the extremities of totalitarianism and control was actually Russian. Yes, Orwell, Bradbury, and Huxley were taught about socialist dictatorship by no other but Yevgeny Zamyatin.

We was published in 1926 as a response of the author's personal experiences during the Russian revolutions in 1906 and in 1917. The dystopian world of We is set in the future, where people do not have names but numbers. Males have odd numbers prefixed by consonants while women - even number prefixed by vowels. All of these "numbers" wear identical clothes, sleep in identical places, and are subject to the ideal of industrial efficiency. Human beings are screws in a machine - the "I" is not important; the "We" creates the state. The whole country is made up of glass as to facilitate control by the secret police and the spies. The ruler is (and has been for quite some time) the same one, the Benefactor, always chosen non-anonymously, as there is no other candidate. The control over society is secured by the successful victory over the two things that drive it - hunger and sex. People eat only mechanically prepared food (the ancient, or future equivalent of GMO) and have sex with whomever they want but only in the pre-determined hours.

In the light of this totalitarian regime, the main character is D-503. He is the builder of the Integral, a space ship supposed to take the logic of the One State to the rest of the universe. However, love and affection mess up the mechanically functioning mind of D-503. He begins doubting the regime and its sustainability and he visits a doctor, fearing he might be having a soul. The reason for his rebellion is a woman, an idea followed by Orwell and Huxley as well. I-330 is magnetic, sensual, and sexual. She dreams of life outside of the wall that surounds the state from the wild nature. She smokes, drinks, and experience the pure pleasure of sexual affairs. Her character and passion attempt to shaken the carefully mechanized world in which D-503 lives.

The Integral that is supposed to send the message of power and control to other nations is analogous to the Marxist's view of a Global Communist state. The focus is on industry and mechanization, which break down actions to easily understood and performed tasks, which require no imagination or creativity. D-503 writes a poem, the initial purpose of which is to share with the others the happiness and wisdom of the One State. Zamyatin here is disgusted with the use of literature by the communists to manipulate and shape public opinion. D-503's poem is a manifesto of conformity and equality but as the protagonist begins to experience his "soul", his attitude towards the regime understandably changes.

We certainly set the beginning of the dystopian novels that widely spread in the second half of the 20th century. Authors were fascinated with the topic of totalitarianism gone mad, especially in the light of the USSR and its rise to power. In We every hour of life is determined by The Table, a precursor of 1984's telescreen. The benefactor is the equivalent of Orwell's Big Brother. The similarities with Brave New World are even more obvious - the control of sex, the focus on industrialization and mechanization, the lack of the family, and the programming of people to love the regime that deprives them. Huxley indeed goes a bit further with his society of promiscuous conformists, pleasure seekers, and happy consumers.

To be honest Zamyatin is not as good as the other authors that followed him. His novel is still a child in its ideas about the endless possibilities of control mechanisms over the society. yet, the Russian is the first one to see through the idea of social equality and to the devastating effects its extreme form might lead in a futuristic world. In that sense, his contribution to the future development of the dystopian literature is incomparable.

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