Reviews of We (1924) and related work

We (1924Text)

Yevgeny Zamyatin (writer).

Read in 2022.

There is a lovely ambiguity over this early future-world dystopia. On its surface, the problem of the United State (as it is called in Gregory Zilboorg’s 1924 translation) is Taylorism. The narrator explicitly references that ideology, and there are many touches of it in his world: Misdirected conclusions from the desire to effectivize and make rational by control. “By merely rotating this handle”, says a lecturer about the recently invented musicometer, “any one is enabled to produce about three sonatas per hour.” The musicometer is an example of a rational conclusion from the wrong premises, similar to how real Taylorist managers tried to improve human life through too narrow a filter. That level of the narrative works fine, but it is only the surface. Written as the Russian Revolution failed, the novel is clearly concerned with the relationship between a hopeful, supposedly rational idea—represented by Taylorism—and its authoritarian implementation, which corresponds to Bolshevism. The United State is collectivist, has a de-facto dictator, practices mass surveillance with informers, executes political prisoners, denigrates outsiders etc.

The precise relationship between the superficial Taylorist problem and the deeper power politics is unclear. That is precisely as it should be. It allows the novel to represent any political perversion, any corruption successfully hiding behind a plausibly beneficial idea, as happened in Russia. Any such corruption would, for its own benefit, resist forming a clear relationship with its altruistic mantle. I like how power is both central and obscure in this system, just like protagonist D-503 is obviously preoccupied with escape and yet unable to articulate or even admit privately to his feelings: “within me it was and remains cloudy”. I also like how often he can’t come up with headings for his diary entries, but has to comment on it dramatically.

The vagueness of the material is, of course, not purely a strength, but sometimes just a failure of the imagination. Given that D-503 is an avid mathematician, it is silly to use imaginary numbers as a metaphor for the human imagination and irrational numbers as a lurking antithesis to Taylorist reductionism (“a whole immense world somewhere beneath the surface of our life”). “Irrational” in the context of mathematics does not mean “contrary to reason” as D-503 seems to think, but “inexpressible as a ratio of two integers”; it must be hard for the man to design a space ship without being more familiar with the concept. The post-apocalyptic setting needed more concrete form instead, but I sense that Zamyatin wasn’t up to it.

References here: Metropolis (1925), Anthem (1938/1946), “Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB” (1967), “Up the Long Ladder” (1989), “The Mind’s Eye” (1991), The Hunger Games (2012).

text fiction

“The Glass Fortress” (2016Moving picture, 29 minutes)

Seen in 2022.

An adaptation in the style of “La Jetée” (1962) that seems to miss all the finer points of the novel.

moving picture adaptation fiction