Sunday, August 13, 2017

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Most of the books I read are recently published, but occasionally I read an older book to continue my education, as I like to put it. This week I read the 1921 novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, this edition translated by Natasha Randall in 2006. Some reviews call it one of the first dystopian novels, but that isn't accurate. After Edward Bellamy's successful 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887, both utopias and dystopias became the fashion for many years to come. Most of these books and their authors are now forgotten, but in English, readers will still recognize 1895's The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, and will know the name of Jack London, though his 1908 book The Iron Heel about the future dystopian struggles leading to utopian socialism is not nearly as popular as his thrilling boy's adventures.

The book We is compact, but for me it was hard to keep focused. It is written in the first person, so the narrator has to describe what is everyday to him (or her) in ways that will make sense to people like his readers who have never seen this world. There are other such books, but it's a tricky proposition. Zamyatin decides to describe things in mathematical terms and colors. As a mathematician, much of his mathematics irritates the hell out of me. For example, his narrator D-503, a mathematically trained engineer in charge of building an interplanetary spaceship, has a particular distaste for the square root of -1, which he calls "irrational". We usually call this number imaginary, but technically he is right. The number we often call i is not the ratio of two integers. Mathematicians call it algebraic.

What irritates me more is that an engineer should know that this very odd idea is of immense practical value in electrical engineering. Using both real and "imaginary" numbers together creates complex numbers and this system very cleanly represents the physical fact that electric currents naturally produce counter-currents that run in a perpendicular direction. Electrical engineers find this idea so useful, then call the square root of -1 j instead of i, so any reference to imaginary is erased. The great mathematician Gauss hated that "imaginary number" was already stuck in the mathematical vocabulary even in his era a century before Zamyatin, and wanted positive to be replaced by direct, negative by inverse and the imaginary directions to be coined lateral and inverse lateral. It is completely possible Zamyatin was never taught this.

Now that I have indulged myself to two paragraphs of mathematical quibbling, let me get to my complaints as a reader of speculative fiction. It's hard to understand some never seen world when the writing relies heavily on bad mathematical descriptions and a made up language of his own personal feelings about colors. Worse still, the first person narrator has a breakdown in the middle of the story where he believes he has died, and several chapters after this point are later to be understood as dreams or hallucinations caused by fever.

The world where D-503 lives is a city made of glass where all lives are supposed to be completely visible to everyone else to make sure everyone is doing exactly what they should be, but there is an exception for when people have sex.  The sex component is excessively important to the plot, and anyone who has seen through Hugh Hefner's idea of utopia can see it for the juvenile male fantasy it is. People can have sex with anyone who can agree to have sex with them, and men are completely free from the burdens of fatherhood. It also presents women who have once given consent and wish to rescind it as horrible and duplicitous creatures. It never assumes to a man he might not be an ideal lover.

In short, if you have never read We, you have my leave to never read it. The book has fans that range from Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who is strongly capitalist and just as strongly anti-Putin, to Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist whose political views are sometimes described as libertarian socialist. Chomsky has said We is superior to Nineteen Eighty Four, which he considers wooden. Just to add a little more interest to reading this book I have said you shouldn't read, Orwell considers it completely superior to Brave New World.

Here's where I stand on these provisos to my bold and underlined main position above. Huxley and Orwell did not get along and I am 100% on Team Orwell. As a prose stylist, Orwell runs rings around Huxley and Zamyatin, though I will admit I cannot read Zamyatin in the original Russian, which is my problem, not his. A point on which I agree with Orwell that We is better than Brave New World is both books have characters who are considered great poets in morally empty times. What would such a poet write? Zamyatin gives examples, Huxley does not.

Point to Zamyatin.

More importantly than any political position or literary merit, Orwell understood the connection between politics of any stripe and lying. Here are his six rules of writing, from his essay Politics and the English Language.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. (Many of Orwell's examples are now thankfully out of date. The best modern example is the completely meaningless cliche "thoughts and prayers".)
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
 To summarize, if you are intrigued by my description or the testimonials, by all means read We. If you want to take my advice instead, find some Orwell you haven't read, especially his collections of essays. In particular, Shooting an Elephant should be at least as famous as The Declaration of Independence or the preamble to The Constitution.

It's a Sunday, so I will write: Here endeth the lesson.

It's a cliche, but any other way of writing it is barbarous.


1 comment:

nancy namaste said...

I think I will pass on the book but save the rules for writing. Good ones to remember! I am enjoying your revived blog. Thoughtful and well written. Nancy