Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sci-Fi novels: We

I stopped reading sci-fi around age 15. But I've returned to the genre recently, playing catch-up on works like Dune. I just finished We, a very early Soviet sci-fi novel (1921) written by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It's not just a brisk, zesty read, it's got artistic substance beyond most sci-fi. George Orwell cribbed a lot from We: the mechanics of his dystopia as well as a few big plot points—including the climax! Basically, We is the prototype for dystopic sci-fi: the protag awakens to his home culture's injustice, joins the revolution, and dies.

It's the 26th century. The OneState is a domed city of glass, a beautiful image subverted by its reason: to more easily spy on citizens. Free love is enforced by bureaucratic forms; people have alphanumeric IDs rather than names, like Star Wars droids. D-503, the protag, has designed the first interstellar rocket. Maybe that's why he's drafted into an anarchist cell by erotic I-330, drawn into despair by her dagger lips (it may be a lefty book, but it's not enlightened).

And so on. Part of the novel's fun is seeing sci-fi tropes in their raw state—you can get the same primitive futurism when you watch Fritz Lang's Metropolis. But We also works as a novel, probably better than 1984. Zamyatin gives D-503 a vivid inner life: the novel's arc is D's breakdown, caught between the anarchist and the state. His insanity is electric in a Dostoyevsky-like way, oscillating between obsessive hyperclarity and fevered ravings. And that climax that Orwell lifted? Actually, both scenes are riffs on the Grand Inquisitor: the State's torturer justifies totalitarian measures by citing his love for the populace.

If We is a sci-fi riff on Dosteyevsky, it's is some cackling-scientist version, a trip to the future in HG Wells' time machine. Zamyatin is ironic to his core: the book ends with anarchy threatening to topple the OneState (yes!), but the hero's been lobotomized (umm…). Still, there's a dashing element of romantic adventure to We. Check out this descrip of the femme fatale, who's been smuggled aboard the rocket:

[T]he huge blue sparks above, over the radio antenna, seemed to come from her, and the faint, lightning smell of ozone, also from her.”

That's right out of Buck Rogers!

We's not a great novel, but it's brisk & engaging. The reason to read it isn't its vision of the future (which is dated) or its investigation of totalitarianism (which, yeah, Orwell did better). It's the mad vivacity that Zamyatin infuses D with. He puts us in D's head then sets it spinning into insanity. Poor D, driven mad by lust, scientific abstractions, and the State. A weird, Soviet electric fantasy.

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