15 July 2009

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, 1921

Welcome to OneState, a soulless totalitarian regime based on mathematical principles, reason, logic and the efficiency models of the 19th century management theorist Frederick Winslow Taylor. The designer of the spacecraft known as the Integral, the mathematician known only as D-503, has love and pity for the life found elsewhere in the solar system, considering them as yet uncivilized by the missionary nature of the Integral’s forthcoming journey. D-503’s diary entries depict a cold and unemotional civilization: OneState is obsessed with its own mathematical perfection, a dictatorship run through with expansionist dogma and rhetoric that it will impose on whatever aliens are encountered out there in the universe. But then there are his misadventures with the rebel movement Mephi and his infatuation with the woman I-330, both of which take his eye off the ball and force OneState to intervene. We was the first work banned by the Soviet censorship bureau and wasn’t published in Russia until 1988, despite having already inspired Ayn Rand’s Anthem and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s easy to see why this short dystopian masterpiece is considered to be among the greatest of its kind; described by its most recent translator Clarence Brown as a “clunky old postmodern monster” it feels very much of its time yet retains a great deal of charm, not least because D-503 knows he is not writing for posterity or his contemporaries but for his wild and remote ancestors, us.  PY


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