Yevgeny Zamyatin's We: A dystopian novel for the 21st century
The 20th century was haunted by literary visions of a future dystopia. In 1905, Robert Hugh Benson published Lord of the World,in which the Earth is governed by the Antichrist. Later dystopias would be more political: George Orwell's1984(1949) featured a cold, merciless, Party-dominated tyranny, while Aldous Huxley'sBrave New World(1932) posited a drugged, manipulated, and productive society. The point of writing a dystopian novel is rather straightforward: for the best authors, it is a way of critiquing current trends and actors by drawing out their ideals and actions to their extreme conclusion.
I've loved all of the above, but the dystopian novel most relevant to our time is Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, which predated Orwell and Huxley, and obviously inspired the former.
Zamyatin wrote We within a few years of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The novel is set 1,000 years after a revolution that brought the One State into power. Citizens are known only by their number, and the story's protagonist is D-503, an engineer working on a spaceship that aims to bring the glorious principles of the Revolution to space. This world is ruled by the Benefactor, and presided over by the Guardians. They spy on citizens, who all live in apartments made of glass so that they can be perfectly observed. Trust in the system is absolute.
Equality is enforced, to the point of disfiguring the physically beautiful. Beauty — as well as its companion, art — are a kind of heresy in the One State, because "to be original means to distinguish yourself from others. It follows that to be original is to violate the principle of equality."
While 1984 and other dystopias featured surveillance and telescreens, We is the most analogous to the panoptical surveillance utopia being promoted by the tech gods of Silicon Valley, who seem to admire computers more than they do humans. In We, citizens see themselves as part of a glorious, infallible machine. In the One State, the Guardians and Benefactor urge men to live like machines themselves, so as to avoid even the possibility of failure. "One State Science cannot make a mistake," Zamyatin writes. He continues:
Why is the dance [of machinery] beautiful? Answer: because it is nonfree movement, because all the fundamental significance of the dance lies precisely in its aesthetic subjection, its ideal unfreedom. [We]
If men show any signs of rebellion, the part of their brain related to passion and creativity is removed through surgery.
Naturally, Zamyatin faced more harassment and punishment for his political views than any of his peers in dystopian literature, and he faced it in both pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. Born in 1884, his early forays into communism drove him into exile, though he returned to Russia during the 1905 Revolution that brought major liberal reforms to tsarist Russia. His involvement in that uprising saw him sent to Spalernaja Prison, where he endured solitary confinement.