28 May 2013

Monday Book Review: Us

Today's review is a day late because here in the US, we were on holiday.  Memorial Day weekend means you are only allowed to do several things: barbeque, do yard work, and eat.  I did all three (FTW).  Now on to your regularly scheduled post (1 day delayed).

I was recommend this book by Filip Stojanovski and the next day I picked it up from the library.  It was one of the grandfather science fiction novels, published in 1921: WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I wasn't aware of a sci-fi novel from the USSR, so I was immediately intrigued.  The novel is narrated (written) by D-503, a cipher in the One State.  Everyone wears the same unif (uniform) and individuality is not a concept.  Everything is done for the One State and emotions do not have a role in society.  In stoic unison, society marches to the mathematical rationality set down by the Benefactor, who is the "elected" leader.  D-503 is preparing a journal to take to other world in the Integral (a spaceship) he is charged with building.  One day, during his scheduled walk, he runs into I-330 and this encounter begins a chain of events that rends his rigid existence in two: he falls in love and it takes over his reason.

While reading the story, it was clear that this book started the dystopian tradition since many sci-fi books like this rely on the obedient-civilian-becomes-primary-agitator formula.  It's always illuminating to read the beginning of a tradition to see what aspects have remained constant and what is up for interpretation. I also saw a little satire and use of irony that reminded me of Platonov's The Foundation Pit and Orwell's Animal Farm, which all centered on the Soviet ideology.  Zamyatin actually inspired Orwell to write 1984 and it's not hard to see the similarities.  Interestingly, I read the entire book thinking about the film Equilibrium.  Filip disagreed that it draws from this novel, suggesting it pulls more from 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, though we know 1984 was born from WE.  The focus on reason vs. emotion stuck out to me as a strong parallel between the film and this novel; the story wasn't lifted wholesale, but the idea of feeling/sensing as the downfall of society is central to the book.  WE is very clearly about the Soviet ideology and resulting culture of society; this becomes incredibly clear when D-503 sees citizens who underwent the Operation (a type of lobotomy) and says they weren't people but "sort of person-looking tractors".  It harps on the pressure to operate as machinery to benefit all of society, creating complete equality through conformity.  No one possesses anything, not privacy or even a lover.  They are registered for regulated sex days and attachments do not exist.  Everything is open for scrutiny and equal division.  The election day for the Benefactor is also a sharp critique of the USSR, since everyone just obligatorily votes for him since there is no opposition.  At first, D-503 thinks this is superior to the ancient uncertainty and secrecy of elections, but grows suspicious of the open unanimity that does not signify anything.

I felt conflicted about this book, for some particular reasons.  I really loved the story--the thinly veiled critique on the USSR through a dystopian sci-fi lens--and it was an engaging read.  I'm not sure if it's the translation I read (Natasha Randall for Modern Library Classics) or simply the source material, but I was driven mad by the vague action descriptions at critical moments.  Sometimes I wasn't sure what was happening. Similarly, the dialogue was consistently lacking a full sentence.  There were so many moments in which a truth is being revealed and the speaker says something along these lines (this is a direct quote): "Because I . . . I was afraid, that if she was . . . that they would have . . . you would have . . . you would stop lov . . . Oh, I can't--I couldn't have!"  While I understand this may be used as a device to contrast the previous life of rigid reason to the flaming passion flaring up in their minds (they are so flustered they cannot follow logic), it made it difficult to understand what anyone was actually talking about.  This may not be everyone's experience, but it was a frustrating aspect of the novel.  I almost want to read a different translation to see if there is any difference.  These moments had me re-reading passages trying to decipher what was happening.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book, but beware of potentially vague passages/dialogue.