by Bruce Sterling
Yevgeny Zamyatin has a sound claim to the invention of the science fiction dystopia. This book, Zamyatin’s only novel, barely saw publication during his tragically shortened lifetime. The Russian text spread by hand-typed samizdat manuscripts in the St. Petersburg literary circles and through tattered, covert copies of a single emigre publication in Prague.
An English translation existed well before any full Russian version saw print. George Orwell, author of 1984, managed to find and read it. Orwell thought that Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, had probably read it. Written with radical invention, deliberate verbal obscurity and cunning political intent, Weiss rather hard book to read or to translate. Traditionally, it’s a hard book even to find.
Zamyatin’s many friends and disciples considered him a mannered overseas sophisticate with advanced and dangerous ideas. He’d been exiled in Finland. He had built ships in distant Britain. In person he came across as a dapper, tweedy naval engineer. Russians nicknamed him “the Englishman.” He managed the translations from English for a Russian publishing house, where he carefully studied the socialist H. G. Wells.
Nevertheless, We is a book that could only have come from Russia, or, rather, from the unique time and space that was revolutionary Petrograd. It’s a science fiction novel set centuries in the future, but this story will spring to life if you can imagine it dressed in full, period regalia, with violently agitated Russian Constructivist costumes and a spacey, ethereal Theremin soundtrack.
Zamyatin was a revolutionary writer by nature, so this scrambling, visionary text isn’t much of a novel. We takes the form of a diary by a future engineer-turned-writer (a Zamyatin stand-in, basically). Our hero, in an unwise attempt to please the authorities, writes a personal confession. He is the chief designer of a mighty spaceship. His literary boasting is meant to aid his regime’s schemes to invade other planets and brainwash their inhabitants.
Nobody living in this regime seems to believe in its surreal and brutal totalitarian tenets. So, our hero’s confident self-psychoanalysis soon goes awry. He’s a government drone with serious woman- troubles (much like Winston Smith, the hero of 1984). Once he is able to confide the overheated contents of his heart and soul to paper, our narrator, D-503, goes straight off the rails. D-503 turns out to be quite a dedicated diarist. His burning urge to literary expression is enough to wreck his career, alienate his best friend, and drive his steady girlfriend to madness.
As Zamyatin had put it in an earlier theoretical essay, “I Am Afraid”: “True literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.” So this book is a kind of negative bildungsroman: it’s about a diligent and trustworthy functionary who shirks his work, fools the cops, dumps a woman who loves him and wants his baby, has a wild affair with a decadent revolutionary, and even helps to hijack a spaceship, all for the sake of belles lettres.
After completing We in late 1920 or early 1921, Zamyatin showed the manuscript to a few friends but was denied publishing permission. When it did appear in print, thanks to the mischievous Czechs, and well out of reach of the Soviet secret police, a predictable hell broke loose. How predictable? For Zamyatin, trouble was very predictable.
Zamyatin was first arrested in 1905, at the age of twenty-one, as a Bolshevik student activist. He was beaten up by Tsarist cops, kept in solitary for months, and exiled to the provinces. This exemplary punishment merely fertilized his eccentricities. Zamyatin was able to sneak back from Finland into St. Petersburg in disguise, where he obtained an engineering degree while squatting in the city illegally. In 1911, the cops rediscovered Zamyatin. This time he was sent into Russian internal exile, where he whiled away the time composing satires. In 1914 one of these satires, “In the Backwoods,” was published. This time, not just Zamyatin but also his publisher faced arrest. The entire print run of the magazine was also rounded up, and Zamyatin’s book was put before a judge, but he somehow avoided jail.
Zamyatin then was sent to England to supervise the construction of Russian icebreakers, where, as a brief change of pace, he satirized the British. However, life without Mother Russia never seemed to agree with him. He quickly returned to Russia between the revolutions of 1917, where, as a noted former troublemaker, he was given a literary job by Maxim Gorky. This period was the high point of Zamyatin’s life and career, though Soviet Revolutionary Petrograd was no Miami Beach. There, in 1922, he published a Poe-like horror tale called “The Cave,” about miserable postrevolutionary Russians simply trying to stay fed and unfrozen in their wintry, unlit apartments.
Zamyatin was arrested by the new Soviet authorities in both 1919 and 1922. When not writing fantastic fiction, hiding it, and/or trying to publish it, Zamyatin spent much time and energy writing about writing. As a participant in early Soviet “NeoRealism” and the guru of the “Serapion Brothers” clique, he was eager to create a tough-minded, sparse, revolutionary futurist-fantasy literature, one that wasn’t mushy, hazy, bourgeois, and Symbolist, but “written with 90-proof ink.” Zamyatin believed that the future could be outguessed by out-guessing the next revolution. How? The seeds of revolutions were already visible as the rantings of today’s heretics. They could also be found in arcane areas of intellectual exploration that had not yet been popularized and acculturated.
Thus the genuinely weird sensibility of D-503, the hero and narrator of We. We is one of the first attempts to write about the future through the consciousness of someone born there and living there. Our hero’s unique, personal Newspeak is a colorful tossed salad of the wildest avant-gardism of the 1920s: Einstein, curved space and the fourth dimension, Marxist dialectic, Freud, free love, math, engineering, aviation, and rocketry It’s a syncretic, wildly imaginative text that combs the world’s library of innovation, science, and dissent, in order to address the one topic it can never directly confront: the cruel descent of the Bolshevik rebellion into frozen dogma and totalitarian stasis.
A passionately literary work, We is (almost) entirely devoid of literary referents. Our hero’s metaphors are scientific and mathematical, to the extent that even women’s faces are described as geometric vectors or mathematical symbols. In this rigid world of supposed efficiency and utopian perfection, our hero’s maddened thoughts are splintered, multi-planar, almost Dadaist. Often, when right on the brink of some revelatory higher sense, his sentences simply …
These Zamyatin word-games, this attempt to be futuristic and think futuristically rather than merely describing futurity from the perspective of the present day, was Zamyatin’s literary breakthrough. This book reads like nothing else on earth before or since. He was entirely grounded in the time and space of Petrograd, yet he managed to take flight.
Yevgeny Zamyatin is orbiting in a literary space all his own with this one. It is a work without real ancestry, and its descendants have rarely matched its visionary daring.
The term “science fiction” was not yet invented when Zamyatin composed this prescient text. It is nevertheless extremely science- fictional. It has whole sets of sci-fi themes and conceits that were entirely fresh when Zamyatin created them: hermetically sealed cities, synthetic food, unisex suits, Metropolis-like crowds of drones marching through Cyclopean apartment blocks, whizzing, roaring trips in giant spaceships, mind control through brain surgery. . . . They’re clichés now, of course: but they were only reduced to cliches through decades of effort by lesser artists.
The book was fiercely attacked by Stalinist party-line critics. Zamyatin’s works were removed from Soviet libraries and he was forbidden to publish. In 1931, Zamyatin and his wife were allowed by Stalin to emigrate to Paris. He continued to consider himself a Soviet writer, always hoping to return whenever the Regime would allow him to write. Some Russian literary émigrés were able to thrive in Paris, but Zamyatin wasn’t one of them. Unable to finish a historical novel, he wasted away in silence and poverty, and he died on March 10, 1937.
There’s little doubt that he had foreseen and expected this fate. Like his hero, he even seemed to somehow relish his own immolation: “The flame will cool tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. . . . But someone must see this already today, and speak heretically today about tomorrow. Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought.”
Bruce Sterling, author, journalist, editor, and critic, was born in Texas in 1954. Best known for his science fiction novels, he also writes design criticism, travel journalism, and a weblog. He is currently living in Belgrade.
SOURCE: Yevgeny Zamyatin, We; Translation and Introduction by Natasha Randall; Foreword by Bruce Sterling; The Modern Library, 2006