Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The Soviet Union as a Product of Science Fiction
My generation grew up on George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. Looking back, high schools across the country must have been concerned that American children needed these books to be properly inoculated against Communism. Don’t get me wrong: both books are excellent depictions of the very real dangers of totalitarianism. In the case of 1984, this wasn’t really science fiction: the Soviet Union was already spying on its citizens, squashing dissidents, redefining words to mean the opposite of what they had originally meant, systemically deceiving citizens through propaganda, and making every effort to engineer human beings to be more amenable to control from above.
Animal Farm wasn’t far off either. The Soviet Union had created a brand new caste of bureaucrats, replacing a traditional aristocratic and bourgeois hierarchy with one that consisted of party functionaries. But before there was Orwell’s 1984 there was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s book, We. We is a science fiction story about a future that doesn’t look all that different from the one Orwell described in 1984. There’s one state, one state newspaper. `In We, citizens are told that individualism is a purely destructive force. For this reason, people don’t have names, only combinations of letters and numbers, like R-13 for example. People are told that “everything is for the good.” They should trust in the state and the existing order of things. Nothing should be challenged.
In Zamyatin’s dystopia, citizens are told that the past is primitive. Rationalism reigns supreme. The state and its people celebrate what they call mathematical-philosophical reasoning, and mathematical equations dominate the text. The people are also told that love is primitive and that they should therefore participate in a system of love-making as a form of lottery. As your turn comes up, you receive a coupon from the government that allows you to select a lover. The next time you receive a coupon, you may select a second woman, and so on. In this world, the government has eliminated most forms of irrationality and emotion. People behave as they should.
Zamyatin’s We was written at an interesting moment in Soviet history. It represented an incredibly rich stage of Soviet cultural and literary experimentation. The novel is forward thinking in terms of both its futuristic content and its innovative style. However, We was produced at a moment when Stalin was tightening his grip on political power and would shortly eliminate most forms of cultural independence. The most interesting thing about We—which isn’t the most lively narrative—is that it reminds readers that the Soviet Union it implicates seemed like a product of science fiction even at its birth. Nothing like it had ever been created previously.
For the first time, the state was actively promoting the idea that it could overcome conflict, produce prosperity, unleash human creativity, enhance culture, and in general overcome some basic human flaws, including jealousy, thievery, disunity, disorder, and irrationality. In We, even the bible is an historical artifact, a product of an unenlightened age. But the moral of We, and indeed the whole of Soviet history, is that Original Sin does in fact exist and cannot be overcome, even if we wanted it to be.