We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

In my quest to remedy my ignorance of 20th century Russian literature, I tackled the grandfather of all dystopian novels, Zamyatin’s We. We tells a story similar to 1984 (unsurprisingly, since Orwell read and reviewed Zamyatin’s book), but where 1984 is concerned with how people break psychologically, We is more about how the main character has long since internalized the rules of his society and how a rebel (a genuine rebel, whereas in 1984 there’s the suspicion that all opponents of the regime are sockpuppets) changes his views.

Zamyatin joined the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia and was arrested several times. An engineer, he worked for the Imperial Russian Navy (apparently they didn’t mind his record) and traveled to the UK for his work. He missed the February Revolution due to being in the UK, but returned just in time for October. However, he grew disillusioned with his own party for their censorship, and decided to have We smuggled out for publication in the West.

We‘s dystopia is based on Communism, Taylorism/scientific management, and Christianity (it is remarked several times that the Christian churches were forerunners of the society in We, and the rebels are named after Mephistopheles). I also detected the influence of Plato–the secret police are known as the Guardians. The Big Brother character (or, I should say, prototype) is known as the Well-Doer or the Benefactor depending on the translation. Interestingly, Zamyatin’s protagonist, D-503, actually gets to meet this character face to face.

There’s also a space ship.

D- is an engineer building a space ship for the government, and writing a record of life in the United State (singular, not plural) to be transported to the aliens that the spaceship will presumably meet. But as he falls for the revolutionary I-330, his record becomes ever more exciting–and problematic for him. He believes in the ideology of the United State, and is confused by his attraction to a woman he knows is against it–and, as the book goes on, his own “criminal” actions.

There is a scene in which the revolutionaries attempt to hijack the spaceship, and generally the book is more exciting than the classic dystopian novels. There’s real hope that the state will be defeated, and the cracks are showing by the end, though the main character is lost forever to a forced operation that destroyed his imagination and made him a conformist again.

I have to agree with Orwell that the loose plotting is a flaw–the same effect could have been achieved in many fewer pages. I also felt the portrayal of O-, D-‘s initial lover, was misogynistic, though this may have just been because we’re seeing it through the eyes of D-, who is definitely sexist. I- is a very different sort of female character, so I’m willing to attribute some of the sexism to D-‘s narration.

The Scorpion Rules – Erin Bow

This book was like id-fic for me. So many elements from my dreams– and nightmares.

It’s an Omelas-type dystopia- a world where the good of the many depends on the suffering of the few. In this case, the few are the children of 25th century world leaders, who are kept hostage throughout their childhood (or as long as their parents are in power) to ensure that their parents don’t start wars. If their parents do, the children are killed. Greta Gustafsen Stuart, our narrator, believes in the system even though it keeps her as a hostage at risk of death. She has a strong sense of dignity, both as a person and in terms of her position as a “Child of Peace”.

Elian, a new arrival at the monastery-like residence of the hostages, has an entirely different idea of dignity. He’s defiant in the face of what he sees as an unjust system, comparing himself to Spartacus, and while the children’s robotic minders go to extreme lengths– even torture– to get him to comply, he continues to rebel until it becomes clear that he’s not the only one who’ll suffer if he keeps it up. In another author’s hands, Elian would be the love interest, but while they kiss a few times and grow close over the course of the novel, Greta’s major romantic relationship is with her (female) roommate, Xie.

Greta is slow to question the system, but she eventually sees the wrongness of her captors’ treatment of Elian– and then they turn on her, too. Ironically, it’s while she’s being tortured with the induced nightmares of “Dreamlock” that the residence is invaded by Elian’s people, who have figured out a way to declare war without sacrificing their hostage. The country they’ve declared war on is Greta’s, and they will stop at nothing to use her against her family.

Oh, did I mention that this whole hostage system is run by an AI?

Talis, the AI, is not happy with the hostage-taking of the hostages. He arrives to sort things out. The trouble is that his idea of sorting things out often involves killing people and destroying entire cities.

I don’t want to summarize the entire plot, but hopefully that gives you an idea of how much you’d like this book. One of its great strengths (it’s written by an ex-physicist) is how well-thought out the AI’s and the technology are– and they become increasingly important as the plot goes on. I normally loathe stories where a person “uploads their mind,” because they fail to take into account that the lack of continuity between the consciousness in the body and the consciousness in the copy, but a few books do it well (Peter Dickinson’s Eva springs to mind). This book doesn’t address all my concerns, but it explores the concept in more interesting ways than most do.

I wish the geopolitics had that same depth– while the cast is diverse (Xie is Asian and Elian is Jewish and “racially indeterminate, like many Americans”), I didn’t feel that the future countries from which the hostages besides Greta and Elian, who are both North American, come were that plausible or textured.

Another weakness is that sometimes concepts are introduced out of nowhere when they become necessary, like “dreamlock,” which was introduced so abruptly that it didn’t feel like an organic part of the world.

However, the strengths more than outweigh the weaknesses. I stayed up till two to see what happened next in this tension-filled story. Erin Bow isn’t afraid to go dark, hard places (and I’m not talking about the violence, but about Greta’s choice at the end and its fallout). Furthermore, characters on all sides of the conflicts have depth and pride, have standards below which they will not sink, even if those standards are very different from person to person.

Greta is a great heroine. I love people who can see past their own self-interest, and while she’s not exactly right when she believes in the hostage system, she’s also noble. I loved her, and I hope she narrates the companion novel, due out next year, as well.

A nonspoilery standout moment in terms of emotion was Greta’s mother’s insistence that Greta not be painted in her monastic Child-of-Peace outfit, because she wants one picture of her not dressed as “Joan of bloody Arc!” And you know it’s because Greta might well die in her role as a Child of Peace, and her mother wants some reminder that’s not connected to the hostage system.

I am waiting on tenterhooks for the sequel. Next year can’t come fast enough.