Posts Tagged ‘Yevgeny Zamyatin’

The most interesting couple of books I’ve read so far this year have been Sapiens and Homo Deus, both by Yuval Noah Harari – regular readers (may God have mercy on your souls) will perhaps recall the way in which Harari’s ideas have informed my response to all manner of, um, 1970s BBC SF series. They go together well as a pair, as you might perhaps expect: Sapiens is an attempt at an account of the forces underpinning and influencing the development of human culture, while Homo Deus builds on this and speculates as to what ideologies may become dominant as technology progresses throughout this century. It is, I think, safe to say that Harari’s ideas are at best a little unsettling, for he predicts a world in which human experience and uniqueness loses much of its value.

Then again, most attempts at predicting the future tend to be rather bleak. Then again (again), most attempts at predicting the future are really nothing of the sort, and are more accurately polemics or jeremiads about the state of the world today. Everyone’s favourite hellish dystopia is probably that of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, and it remains a monumental piece of 20th century fiction. The last occasion that I properly read it, though, it was around the same point that I properly gave some attention to Brave New World for the first time. Orwell’s writing is more powerful, and his book more compelling as a result, but in many ways I found the world of the Huxley novel somehow more plausible – it’s an equally grim depiction of a society which has lost all moral focus and become utterly dependent on facile hedonistic entertainments, but I could see why people tolerated and even enjoyed living in it. The world of Nineteen Eighty Four is just ghastly, benefiting nobody; why would anyone tolerate it?

Perhaps I was being naive, or at least not paying attention – for, again, around the same time I read The Grapes of Wrath, another colossal work of literature which is in some ways predicated on the notion of the systems we have created to enable society to function going out of control. The banking system no longer exists for the benefit of human beings; human beings exist for the benefit of the banking system, and must modify their behaviour accordingly. Personal relationships are irrelevent – the rules must be followed. It was ever thus, we are told, thus must it ever be, just accept it.

One quite little-known fact is that Nineteen Eighty Four owes a huge debt to a Russian novel from a couple of decades earlier – Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. I must confess to never having heard of it until a student gave me a copy as a gift, but it’s a striking piece of dystopian SF in its own right, as well as resonating quite alarmingly with some of Harari’s ideas about the way society and culture are heading.

The narrator of We is D-503, a citizen of the all-encompassing OneState, a society run along lines of the strictest mathematical accuracy and precision (citizens do not have names – they are simply Numbers). D-503 is the chief designer of a new spacecraft, the Integral, which is intended to spread the perfect creed of OneState throughout the rest of the universe, and the text of the novel is supposedly intended for the benefit of members of less-advanced societies.

Well, of course, D-503’s perfectly ordered existence – daily routine precisely scheduled, regular Sex Days with his assigned partner O-90, and so on – is shaken up when he meets I-330, an inexplicably alluring woman not afraid to break the laws and social codes of OneState. It turns out there are plans afoot to strike against the unquestioned dominance of OneState, and D-503 and the new spacecraft are central to this.

I should say that the book is much less of a thriller than I’m probably making it sound, being of a decidedly literary bent; the fact it was obviously written around 1920 inevitably dates it as well. The parallels with Nineteen Eighty Four are obvious, in terms of both theme and plot (Orwell himself said he took We as his model when planning his own novel), although Zamyatin’s writing is less visceral and a little more abstract.

Nevertheless, time and time again the novel chimes with the direction that you could argue our world is heading in now – D-503 and the other numbers live in what’s effectively a glass city, permitted privacy only during their scheduled sexual encounters. I am irresistibly put in mind of Harari’s prediction of the rise of Dataism as the next great world ideology, where privacy – withholding of information about your activities, not putting every detail of your life and experiences on-line – is socially unacceptable and the world functions as, effectively, a data economy (not so very different from society as a mathematical construct, as Zamyatin proposes). Far from being central to a liberal humanist ideology, qualitative human experience will have little or no value in a Dataist society, Harari argues, and goes on to discuss the rise of non-conscious intelligent systems and how this will affect our lives. Arguably similar is the concluding movement of We, in which the authorities OneState introduce a surgical procedure which supposedly eliminates the imagination (it appears to limit self-awareness and make the subject suggestible) – the population are reduced to being drone-like ‘tractors in human form’.

The reader of We is invited to find this nightmarish, and few would disagree with Zamyatin. Harari presents it as a logical development of the way our society is currently progressing, although he himself suggests that predictions of the future have a tendency to change the future themselves. Both these books are fascinating, not least for the extent to which they agree with each other. Do they genuinely predict the future any more than Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty Four? You could argue that both Huxley and Orwell got it partly right. I’m not brave enough to suggest that Zamyatin and Harari didn’t, at least to some extent.


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