Conspiracy Lives: WE the People of Dystopia

STORY BY James Sullivan

Published: November 15, 2013

It has been almost 90 years since the publication of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We in 1924, yet its message may read more clearly than ever before. Zamyatin, a Soviet naval engineer, seems to have largely faded into obscurity, although it was his hobby of writing science fiction stories that left a considerable mark on Western literature.

We, a cautionary tale composed as the Soviet Union solidified as one nation (parallel to the OneState in which Zamyatin's dystopian novel takes place), had to be published in exile in France. It is surprising that Zamyatin, who directly influenced the much more well known works of George Orwell, and who was targeted by Stalin's Politburo, died a natural death, from a heart attack in Paris, surrounded only by his wife and a few friends in 1937. (French film auteur Jean Renoir was among them, with whom Zamyatin wrote the screenplay to Les Bas-fonds.) Unfortunately, death never came to OneState, the world under one rigid stratification system one thousand years into the future that Zamyatin envisioned, and which may be coming true faster than he ever planned for.

While the Golden Age of Science Fiction was still some ways away, never fully forming until the onset of the Cold War, it was Zamyatin's approach to science fiction that first transformed it into a genre to be taken seriously. Before his time, were the light-hearted adventure tales of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, but Zamyatin turned to writing attacks against the increasingly conformist regime in the guise of a futuristic allegory. Anti-Stalinist propaganda was easily found and confiscated on sight by state censors, but a story about a rocket-powered time machine called the Integral could be deemed pretty safe at the first few glances.

While Verne and Wells may feel rather antiquated to the avid sci-fi reader of today, or regarded as objects of curiosity, precursors more to steampunk than science fiction itself, We actually remains surprisingly readable – stuffed with references to engineering and mathematics in particular. In a world where everyone is truly equal – with shaved heads, uniforms, and required to follow a strict regimen of programming daily – people are given letters for names. The novel's protagonist is D-503, named for the Greek letter delta, used in chemistry to signify an agent for change, and the only one who has the potential to stop the construction of the Integral, which will bring order and symmetry throughout time and space. His love interest, is the shockingly free-spirited I-330 (I for i – an irrational number), who drinks and smokes and wears ancient clothing, even if the law expressly forbids it.

How much have things stayed the same? Perhaps the greatest problem that keeps the bureaucrats of OneState in fear, is the imagination, that there are dangerous citizens like I-330 who use it freely, and that it is an invisible enemy, which, if found and surgically removed, will bring the entire order of OneState into a harmonious balance, a long hurdle from the chaos of the twentieth century, which they only remember for its brutality, although I-330 remains nostalgic. In fact, today we have not only cubicle dwelling structures with see-through visibility as the characters in the book, but also surveillance of citizens increasing year by year. 

More shockingly, scientists at Dartmouth did indeed manage to measure patterns of brain waves through magnetic imaging, while test subjects were asked to mentally manipulate objects in their mind, drawing from the trove of symbols and memories an individual's human being is exposed to. Although nothing imagined appears in the mind, as it is in real life, in a darker future this could be seen as a disease in need of a cure. 


Other Stories by James Sullivan
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