George Orwell, on Freedom of Speech

occupy-orwell

The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them. The decline in the desire for individual liberty has not been so sharp as I would have predicted six years ago, when the war was starting, but still there has been a decline.

– George Orwell, in 1945

The Complexities of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We.”

we_city

“There is no final revolution.” – I-330, We

When it comes to classic dystopian novels, it’s hard to compete with the brutal combination of George Orwell’s 1984 and Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Orwell’s novel – which I’ll admit to being biased toward—is overwhelmingly bleak, painting a very human portrait of what would happen if human beings lost their humanity.  It shows a world that has been destroyed by fear.  Huxley, on the other hand, portrays a world destroyed by our obsession with meaningless triviality.  The two books are opposing sides of the same coin.

Both novels, however, owe an enormous debt to a novel that is mentioned all-too-rarely: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s sci-fi masterpiece, We.   And it’s a shame, because We is a very powerful novel in its own right, and it deserves far greater recognition.

we_yevgeny

Orwell was very open about We’s inspiration on 1984, whereas Huxley claimed to have never read it—a statement that Orwell disagreed with, believing that Huxley was lying.  Regardless of who was lying about what, the parallels between We and both of these classics is impossible not to see.  We predated both novels by several decades, seeing publication in 1924.

So, what’s the plot?

We takes place in a world of glass—glass walls, glass sidewalks, glass buildings.  A fully transparent world, where everyone follows the exact same schedule—even down to impersonal, scheduled sexual encounters—and everyone has been carefully trained to despise individuality and loathe imagination, instead aspiring to become merely a cog in the great machine of the One State.  Everyone lives in cities, separated from the outside world by the Green Wall. The world is ruled by logic and mathematics, and free will is a thing of the past.   Now, this society of glass is attempting its greatest achievement yet: the Integral, a spaceship that will be used to conquer other worlds.

In this strange world, we are introduced to a character named D-503 – the head engineer of the Integral, a diehard supporter of the One State, and a man whose entire world is about to be turned upside down when he accidentally falls headfirst into a sexual relationship with a rebellious woman named I-330.

Yes, this probably sounds a bit familiar, but remember, We did it first.

we_cover

The first thing that separates the novel We from its dystopian children is that it’s far more science fiction oriented; whereas the sci-fi elements of novels like 1984 and Brave New World are relegated to the background, We displays them far more openly, and the concept itself is far less realistic.  Another notable difference between We and most other dystopian novels is that the protagonist, D-503, isn’t particularly sympathetic.  In contrast to Winston, who betrays his party early and often, D-503 is constantly looking for a way to undermine his own betrayal and return things to how they were before he met I-330.   Finally, the third primary difference is tone.  Yamyatin’s novel isn’t quite as serious nor gritty  as Orwell’s—if anything, it’s really more a satire, and it’s a satire of the best kind.

It’s amazing that this novel was written as early as it was; inside its pages, Zamyatin mounts a decimating attack on Soviet Totalitarianism, utterly goring the very concept.  For that alone, it’s an incredibly important novel to read.

However, due to this more satirical nature, We doesn’t have quite the same sense of fierce, torturous horror as 1984, though several sequences toward the end come close; this isn’t a flaw, simply a difference in style.  1984 was crafted to make the reader scared, angry and furious – to force the reader into action, to open their eyes.  We’s goal is similar, but different.  Yamyatin wants to make the reader shocked, he wants to make the leader scoff mockingly, and then, finally…he wants to make the reader think.

Unlike the many dystopian novels it inspired, We isn’t anywhere near as despairing – but it isn’t entirely hopeful either, and this dualism is exactly what makes it interesting.  As I-330’s quote at the beginning of this blog states, the central theme of We is that “There is no final revolution.”  We doesn’t paint a picture of a world that will forever become worse and worse, but it also doesn’t imply that humanity will always overcome all evils and be prosperous.

No, the statement that We makes is far more complicated, and far more realistic.  We shows us that the only constant in life—and civilization—is change.  The irrational nature of “the square root of negative one” – a recurring motif within the narrative – demonstrates that  that there will always be things that break the rules, things that can’t be controlled, can’t be understood.  Governments will always be overthrown.  Systems will always be replaced.

Yevgeny’s novel has a remarkably complex message –and that message firmly cements the book as one of the most unique and important sci-fi novels of all time.

-Nicholas Conley

we_cover2

Favorite opening lines

In any novel, there’s no line more important than the first.  The opener has to pull the reader in.  It has to grab us, shock us, interest us, do something that will make us decide to delve into the story.  Having recently had an interesting conversation regarding the best opening lines in literature, I decided to list a few of my favorites on this blog:

bigbro

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

-George Orwell, 1984

I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground

If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.

-Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

It was a pleasure to burn.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

All this happened, more or less.

-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.

-Stephen King, The Gunslinger

And of course, we’ll finish with the all-time classic, translated to English from the original German:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

-Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

If you guys have any other favorites to list, feel free to post them below!  Also, before I go, a quick reminder:  this Saturday, I’ll be reading from The Cage Legacy at Books & Boos, from 5 to 7pm.

Till next time,

-Nicholas Conley