In this special guest post, Lyubov Dali offers an analysis of Zamyatin’s We and Huxley’s Brave New World in light of their striking dystopian visions
What is freedom to you? Is it an ability to choose what degree to pursue, where to live, what to have for dinner, or is it that hip Pharrell tune? Would limiting these freedoms make you unhappy? More importantly, are you likely to ever be persuaded to volunteer your freedom, aspirations, identity to be sacrificed for the greater social good? Now before you dismiss us as lunatics, you might be surprised to learn that there were literally hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people who not so long ago willingly sacrificed their freedoms for the promise of a better society. Can it happen to us?
Brace yourself to hear not one, but two such stories: one of a society whose existence was shaped by an authoritarian regime, another – of a society that we are at risk to be building now. We will call on to two dystopian (of course!) authors who produced two of the most consequential dystopian works: a Russian Evgeniy Zamyatin and an English Aldous Huxley.
What is a dystopia anyway and why is everyone so hyped about it?
Glad you asked. Dystopia is a literary movement that generally describes what certain tendencies in social, scientific, environmental, and technological development among others can lead a society to. Dystopian literature explores totalitarian regimes and societies. Most dystopian worlds are based on a logic that any given person is nothing more than a mere social unit.
The hype around dystopian ideas about the future is not only due to Donald Trump’s victory (although it helped to introduce 1984 and This Can’t Happen Here to a whole new readership). What is so interesting about fictional dystopian societies, is their ability to dismantle any notion of a personal opinion or an individual. It’s not only that people are prohibited from expressing their opinion, it’s that their personal opinion ceases to exist. People follow a certain ritual and know their place in it. There can be no individual in a dystopian society, only a collective “us” mediated by the rulers of this society. Basically, it’s a dictator’s dream.
Your typical dystopian novel plot revolves around a conflict between one of a few existing (or emerging!) individuals, who long to make their own life, choices, and mistakes. It isn’t shocking that the atmosphere of fear is what’s prevalent in any dystopian novel. So, if you’ve been fangirling over the new IT or American Horror Story, you’re likely to enjoy the feeling of being lost in We or Brave New World.
All about us
We is arguably the most important work produced by Evgeniy Zamyatin. We didn’t go down well with his Soviet contemporaries, being seen as a travesty, a mean caricature on a bright new Soviet future everyone in the USSR was apparently building at the time.
Zamyatin wrote this work while living in Saint-Petersburg (then Petrograd), whose citizens were suffering from deprivation of food and heating. The year was 1920, and state’s brutality, violence against an individual, and overweening confidence in promises of a great communist future created a fruitful ground for We to grow on. It’s really not surprising that the esteemed Mr Zamyatin went ballistic on the state.
The protagonist is a genius mathematician and a chief engineer of a new spaceship ‘Integral’. Unlike the ship he has no name, but a serial number ‘D-503’. He wears the same uniform as all his countrymen, satisfies his sexual needs at an allocated hour with an allocated female comrade. He worries not about sexuality and procreation; the state has got it covered. They have a special childbearing and upbringing program. They also surround the country with a huge green fence separating the esteemed citizens of this suprastate from its surroundings (we all know someone who’d love this, don’t we).
D-503 is oblivious to the idea that any other lifestyle is possible. That is, right before he is encouraged to write a diary propagating the glory of this lifestyle of his. Once D-503 puts pen to paper, he starts describing his daily routine, and consequentially analysing and discovering the human condition and questioning the ways of the society around him. At one point, D-503 is even tempted to challenge the current system. It’s worth reading the book to find out what happens next. We will only say that the suprastate put up some fight!
There are striking similarities between Zamyatin’s suprastate and what went on in the USSR at the time, so it’s plausible to assume that We is rather critical of an autocratic dictatorship and its elimination of a personal identity. There is, however, another dimension to the book that is no less important.
Through the eyes and mind of D-503, Zamyatin tried to forecast what happens when people abandon an ambition of personal development and growth, and disregard the importance of developing an independent personal opinion. By our current standards, these people are anything but free. They are puppets on the string of a top-down ideology, yet the people of We are absolutely happy and content. Their happiness might be of a nature seemingly unfamiliar to the reader, yet some sort of happiness it is.
We might think it impossible to be fooled by a promise of this one-fits-all type of happiness in the age of individualism; yet our embrace of the rapid technological progress and the comforts it brings is leading us into a different trap, the one of Brave New World.
Welcome to the future
The world Aldous Huxley constructed in his famous work showcased what influence scientific progress can have on an individual. Brave New World, written in 1931, also attempts to explore the human condition and to see how an individual differs from a social unit.
The society forecasted by Huxley might seem like a curious place for those of us who appreciate a good Netflix binge, a great night out with friends, great food and other guilty pleasures. The society of Brave New World is prosperous, and has substituted harmful drugs with just the one that maximises pleasure and eliminates negative effects on a human body. People are still divided into different classes, but they are content with it thanks to the new pre- & post-natal propaganda techniques. Just as in We, children are ‘grown’ by the state and programmed into the life that the state chose for them. It might seem somewhat problematic to you now, but governmental propaganda of Brave New World sells the logic behind it really well.
Citizens of the ‘Brave New World’ think of themselves as free of discomforts, savagery, pain, and hurt, yet they have been regulated by their state into subjecting to their basic desires. Everything in that fantasy world is aimed at the simplification of life, just like all these wonderful apps, allowing us to order food, taxis, and dates. We simplify such processes because it makes our life more comfortable and we can enjoy it better. The Brave New World would probably feel more familiar and friendly than the autocratic world of We.
The protagonist of the story with some no-good friends of his, however, probably being the egocentric millennials they are, decide that this predestined ritual of a life is meaningless, even though the majority of people seem quite happy with it. The fates of the main characters are seemingly different and very intricate, yet they show us different manifestations of choosing personal freedom over social happiness really well.
What Huxley does is masterfully explore the idea of the loss of individual identity under the promise of comforts and enjoyments that technological progress offers. His prosperous imagined society now seems like a chilling prophecy of media targeting, instant gratification and a loss of privacy that was sacrificed to our desire for comfort and constant entertainment.
Are we doomed yet?
We and Brave New World paint two very different societies, yet in both of those a person is degraded to an object that is a slave to either an efficiently working technocratic system or his own desires. We do not encourage panicking about the future, but we strongly urge you to pay attention to the dystopian genre. Just as chess teaches you to think several steps ahead, dystopian novels equip you to intelligently address and critically analyse any actions of a country’s powerful ones. The 21st Century is marked by the ever-increasing speed of social and technological progress, and while it brings innumerable benefits and comforts, we should be cautious about the challenges it introduces, too.
Lyubov Dali is an LSE (2012) and Loughborough University (2011) graduate with a keen interest in exploring and celebrating differences and commonalities across cultures, academic fields and people.
With an academic background in Communications & Media and Cultural & Gender Studies, plus 5+ years of professional experience in PR, marketing communications and digital, Lyubov sees it as her mission to bring academic discourse and wisdom to a wider audience.