Uncanny Valley Digest: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

zamyatinweOur Wednesday night Zamyatin discussion was the hammer and tongs! Like many thought-provoking Russian novels of its time, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 authoritarian dystopia, We, was first published in translation, outside of Russia. It is an epistolary novel of journal entries made by the chief engineer of a starship that is about to deposit its payload of perfected human life into space. This ship, the INTEGRAL, will be loaded with “treatises, epic poems, manifestos, odes, or other compositions dealing with the beauty and grandeur of OneState.” Since everyone who feels capable is required to compose something, our narrator begins this diary. His name is D-503.

David: “Welcome to the July 8th edition of the Quarantine extravaganza.”

Regarding We
David: The book is very lean. Very little sentence subordination. Almost no adverbs. Dense.
Nowell: It get’s tedious.



Chris: Frederick Winslow Taylor, pioneer of psychophysiology. He invented time and motion studies. Made Henry Ford a fortune measuring workers motions to make them most efficient. The conversion of a human to a perfect part of a machine, in flesh and blood. “An evil science developed for American capitalism that is now everywhere.”
David: A prognostication that life and culture will become this machine factory way, too.
Nikita: The doctor’s office. A very Freudian reading of the soul as an ailment. The mirror analogy . A hard surface that gets softened by heat by fire of irrational passions. It then doesn’t reflect reality, it absorbs it within, generating soul, which is a sickness in OneState.
Chris: There are two doctors in the office. One who is –
Suhail: Dr. Scissorlips!
Chris: Yes, him who is I-330’s contact. (and also the guy who seems helpful in getting D-503 in contact with I-330 and the underground society. Spoiler: but he’s not helping revolutionaries, he’s helping identifying them!)
Nikita: And the other doctor, who is developing the surgery to remove the Imagination.
Chris: and what about the S-shaped man who follows him?
Nikita: a common figure, lurking in the background, you never know why he’s watching the character.
Chris: The Secret Police man is not a threat. He’s your friend. He knows you, understands your circumstances, sympathizes. He doesn’t want to bust you. He wants your whole network.
Meg: D-503 is all about control. It’s such a terrifying crisis for him to feel emotion. It drives him out of his mind to feel intense desire, or love.
Chris: Notice the resonance with the Matrix. Neo was the mechanism that instantiates the irrationality that all complex systems inevitably yield, undermining the system itself.
Suhail: Like Godel, Escher, Bach. The opening idea that more complex systems tend to produce instances that the system cannot account for.
Nowell: Like the square root of -1 for D-503.
Meg: The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forester (1905), was his technological dystopia in response to the telephone and what he was afraid it would do to people.
Suhail: In The Machine Stops, everyone stays home in a comfortable, convertible room and lives life through video calls and never makes physical contact with other people. The state owns children and raises them away from their parents (Also in We).


St.Basil Orthodox Cathedral and Minin & Pozharskiy monument in Moscow, Russia.

Technology Worship And The Russian Revolution
Chris: Ideologically based societies tend to develop plans to remake society. Communism and Socialism wanted to engineer society.
Nikita: And instead of change over generations, the Bolsheviks wanted to do it over the course of 2 five-year-plans. A lot of heads rolled. Millions. Although, this early 20th century futurist movement started as a positive thing. An optimistic futurism that wanted to leave behind the past with speed and machines. But we can’t forget, coded in male terms of war and power. The excitement of leaving the past behind by riding in an automobile or jumping out of a plane with a parachute gave mass society great pleasure. Later, it darkened into crushing organic flesh under the heel of the machine.
David: Is this a critique of 1920s Russia?
Nikita: Zamyatin was a Bolshevik himself. He bought in early on, during the optimism. He was imprisoned for it and eventually released. As an artist he believed in creative freedom and was quite disillusioned by the movement. Zamyatin was one of the few Russians whom Lenin gave permission to leave Russia (for Paris, where he lived out his life). Bulgakov was not allowed to leave. Zamyatin was viciously attacked by critics, the new peasant-cum-intellectuals who didn’t want his style in the canon. It drove him out of Russia.
Suhail: It doesn’t read to me as a critique of socialist Russia, but of this global technological acceleration, and how it could do this to any country.
Nikita: Russia didn’t have a Renaissance, like Europe. They went directly from the middle ages to the Revolution, trying to update centuries worth of change into one generation.
Suhail: From feudal peasants to college educated hack novelists in one fell swoop. Ouch.
Nikita: It was pretty medieval, yes.

Characterizations By A Love Sick Engineer
Meg: For the narrator each character is represented as one image, the puffy wrist, the parabola bald spot, the O mouth, the sharp toothed I-330. Because he’s a mathematician, he reduces each person to a visual trait. That is all he sees, or references. It creates for a kind of disjointed sense of space, but it strangely highlights the perspective of a person like D-503 who can no see whole human beings.
Ryan: He’s definitely in the realm of the surrealists, like Breton and that time.
Chris: D-503 is experiencing a tortured spontaneity. He can’t handle it. He makes a miserable sensualist showing everyone what an emotionally immature idiot he is. Is this the horror of the novel, that “I too could cast into this madness of passion.”
Meg: He’s clueless that I-330 is manipulating him, almost mocking him. This gets into the novel being a satire. But how far is it going to go? It’s pushing it to call it satire sometimes.
Nikita: He’s a pawn of both sides. Either allegiance to the Benefactor or the confusing, irresistible woman.
David: This guy has no emotional outlets whatsoever. A Freudian would wonder, “What the hell happens to this person’s brain when he falls asleep? It must blow like a fuse!”
Nikita: D-503 is attracted to this femme fetal who will annihilate him and release and relieve him of his lust as well. She could leave him at any moment but she will also delight him. He can’t resist her, and she can’t decide if she cares about him. His only other choice is the all-controlling Benefactor, a technological, hierarchal father figure.


Father, anyone?

Chris: The Freudian death-drive. It’s “off-the-shelf Freud.” After the seduction he’s drawn into a world organized around sex and death (eros and thanatos). And he is trapped between that world and the OneState world of + and – .
Nikita: Zamyatin is using the ultimate dichotomy between Freedom and Happiness, borrowed from Dostoyevski’s Grand Inquisitor chapter from Brothers Karamazov. Freedom (suffering, doubt, feed yourself, survive, lots of choice) Vs. Happiness (regularity, the total state that supplies for everyone’s needs and replaces the need for religion)

World-Building Minutiae, Glass, and Russian Dolls
Suhail: Some world-building details he slips in almost as afterthought clues. There was a 200 Years Ward. Only 0.2% of Earth’s population survived. We live in these glass cities away from the overgrown wastelands beyond. There are 10 million citizens in OneState, that’s all that’s left of humanity. (Not counting the hairy savages living outside the Green Wall (glass barrier containing the city.) Also, a detail about naming the Numbers: males get consonants, females get vowels.
Chris: The world building thread of glass. Why all this glass? There’s glass everywhere.
Suhail: The symbolic transparency of human life, the state seeing everything and everyone through all neighbors spying on each other.
Meg: This seemed to me an antecedent to the generational starship trope in science fiction that followed this. The INTEGRAL is a kind of generational starship. A ship that arrives at its destination piloted by the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the original passengers. So the ship has to be able to sustain itself for centuries.
Chris: Back to the glass for minute. I thought about the Russian doll image, the Matryoshka, a sense of nested scale in the glass. The city is a big glass ball. Each room is a small glass ball. Each person’s shaved head is a small glass ball, clear and predictable. Even the way people are interrogated and executed for having an Imagination takes place in a round glass bell.
Meg: Glass is a man-made structure. Control again.
Nikita: Glass as a building medium had been hot since the early skyscrapers of the gilded age, late 1800s.

David: An 1851 image of the Crystal Palace at The Great Exhibition Of Industry Of All Nations, in Hyde Park, London.
Woah, dig that. The first moment in modern architecture where you could see out in great scale and nature was right there with you while you were still inside.
Chris: Connection to stained glass in churches to cast light on the numinous presence of the divine spirit.
Suhail: But here it’s Prosperity Gospel glass buildings, instead of church stained glass.
Nikita: Incidently, Dostoyevksi’s Notes From Underground was an intentional middle finger at that Crystal Palace and that technological optimist Great Exhibition.
Everyone Else: NO kidding, cool, I had no idea. Thank you, Nikita.
Nikita: Evidently, that spectacle, and that palace particularly, infuriated him.

Movie Trailers And Proper Names
David: We have the trailer for the 2021 release of the motion picture, W.E.
We took a break to watch it. Looks cool. “I’d watch it.” Foreign cinema, babee!

Nikita: This connects to Lem’s Solaris, the choice between happiness and freedom. In Solaris, something happens to make the character leave the fantasy planet that generates the fantasy of his dead wife, returning to the reality of his (now-dead) father.
David: Also connections to Logan’s Run, and THX-138, giving people coded names. The number labeling system, as a sci-fi trope it speaks volumes.
Chris: Gulag guards used number codes to address prisoners.
Meg: Atwood said this novel influenced The Handmaid’s Tale. Certainly the naming conventions. Also the way sexuality is regimented in that society, like the pink tickets in We.
Nikita: The names are such an obvious mechanism from a writer’s perspective. And from a philosophical perspective. Your proper name is your passport to symbolic reality; it’s your ticket. It precedes you, presumably as you are born. Your name is given, not chosen, typically, and it lasts after you. The name. it’s connected to your unconscious somehow. It’s considered by some Russian thinkers an immortal part of your body, similar to the way your hair and nails keep growing after you die. AND in the 1920s in Russia people actually did this, forsook their Christian names and took on mechanist, “Taylorist” names, like Bolt, or Hammer, or Ninel (Lenin backwards)
Chris: Like River, or Rainbow, or Moon Unit.

Join us next week for Philip K. Dick’s first robot novel, We Can Build You.
Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Now, the notes! (Translation and Introduction by Clarence Brown, 1993)

xviii: Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 – 1915)
xix: not blaming nationalities. All of humanity is going this route.
xxi: sci-fi is a literature of ideas
xxii: a Zamyatin essay from 1923, “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters”
5: the Green Wall is glass
6: sublimity of ultimate rationality
6, 36: zero freedom = zero crime. Intentional satirical logical syllogisms of human values that fail in their simplicity. If you stop valuing freedom and love, all else follows.
10: love at first sight, via irritation.
10, 39: The irrational number in human thought. No ratio can represent the idea.
11, 17: people as parts of a machine
13: sterilized social world, and proud of it
13: even the two Personal Hours will become incorporated
18: grand piano as artifact
18: A propaganda diet must be rigorously maintained. Imagination is a pang, an epileptic illness. Being trained to laugh at old, creative music. But this time the music touched him instead.
20: Of the Sex Hour, only 15 minutes of it are budgeted for the carnal act itself. They do workbook problems together, also.
21: War between City and Country. Totally Russian Revolution flavor.
22: *bread is extinct.
22: backstory. catastrophic 200 years war. population depletion. petroleum-derived food, the saving technology.
22: How sex is regulated. Pink tickets. Make envy impossible, and happiness is inevitable. Like a ratio with a zero in it.
25: so tongue-in-cheek. The “ideal is “where nothing ever happens anymore.”
25: all “unforeseen circumstances are budgeted to the Personal Hours.
27: The use of color troubles ol’ D-503
28: Children are raised by the state, as in “The Machine Stops” (E.M. Forster)
29: A “clear” antecedent to Winston and Julia’s relations in 1984.
30: “equality” with a dual edge, making “originality” impossible and undesirable.
33: dream-state anti-logic of bodily fluids. “juices”
33: dreams are mental illness, as well.
36: “beneficent yoke of the Benefactor.” push on, beasts of burden.
35-6: surveillance intrigue. so different from Stealing Worlds, where surveillance was blunt, obvious, trite, ubiquitous.
37: D-503 is triggered. Some logic ought to help! He uses logic cruelly on O, to say that modern spies are less odious than ancient spies. Dood’s whack.
39: Pliapa, the old, robotic math teacher.
41: his self is splitting. 56, 59, 63: he’s dissolving into… 71,79: he’s made his transition. Color no longer disturbs D-503. In fact, he uses it to describe his own mood. Color and ripening. 79: he’s in love. 80: colors again, for him.
41: painting ? “In The Carriage” ?
43: Borg-ish. Integrated from the cretin to Shakespeare, so we never have either anymore. [68: same with humans and gods, total equality, so we don’t have either anymore.]
45-9: public, religious, capital punishment for thought crimes. Be rendered down to water
56-7: drunk and impassioned, such alien feelings, totally overwhelm our INTEGRAL-designing engineer.
61: another instance where clear-cut rational duality fails the human condition. Non-Freedom = Happiness.
65: giving infinity parameters, to soothe the existentially dreadful mind.
66: poetry, the ocean, all subjugated to reason and “usefulness and functionality.”
70: certainty of love, despite logic. like a natural law.
72: he already knows he’s dead (the old him?), but the passion, love, bliss, carries him.
72: heart-certainty now, rather than reason-certainty. This is how it “had to be.” (Italics his.)
73: beautiful, sexual, compelling…ruination.
74: emotional fullness! I’ll even fit this uncertainty into a syllogism.
75-6: the neighbor (spy) and the impulse to salvation and support from these spies. Like S on the subway is almost comforting, because at least he’s a Guardian. At least he knows what’s best for me.
77: I take it the preponderance of ellipses…during sex scenes…indicates…censorship? or is his writing that vague? I doubt it. It’s confusing either way.
77: good image management (from his tryst with I-330 at Ancient House)
84: S is still on his tail and now it goads
85: S…very Kafka
87: Brief, OneState-doctor’s definition of the soul, as illness.
88-9: love roller coaster, the faintest hope of seeing her makes his despondent day.
88: an epidemic of cases of soul. The system is breaking down? Humanity is resurfacing despite OneState’s hard work?
90: Good image management, “prose poem” vibe.
91: the virtues of walls, particularly the Green Wall
92: the same way I-330 said she was in love with that old woman at Ancient House.
94: He “died.” Was it a panic attack? a fainting spell. He blacked out for 10 seconds and no one ever does that anymore. No reference point for a black out, but death.
94: an old deep subway tunnel?
98: logical reasoning of material shapes for irrational numbers, like the square root of -1. meaning: the “soul” is as real as a pair of boots behind the closet door. *boom* logic implodes.
99: “None of this vanished. It was just concealed by the light of day.”
103: O deregisters him. A break-up letter.
104: no “Innumerable Pity”. when only 10 workers die, it’s too few, given the whole of humanity, to slow down or mourn.
105: a clue in the naming system. Consonants for males. Vowels for females.
111: reducto ad finem

About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
This entry was posted in Authors and Writing, Book Reviews, Books, Movies, Science Fiction, Sociey and Culture, summer reading, Technology and Culture, uncanny valley and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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