Guest Blogger Reviews featuring Stainless Steel Droppings

guest_blogger_review.jpgIf you look over to the right on our sidebar, down where we’ve included links to other book bloggers, you may see the name Stainless Steel Droppings. A daily reading obsession for inkonvellum, Stainless Steel Droppings is run by a wonderful {insightful, fun, generous, puts-together-the-best-challenges} gentleman named Carl. He graciously agreed to kick off a new feature here on “Read This!” with a review of a Russian sci-fi novel titled We. The “Read This!” crew hopes you enjoy reading Carl’s fantastic review – and, hey, the library owns a copy of the novel if you’re interested! – and we hope you’ll stop by his blog, too!

we.jpgWe ~Yevgeny Zamyatin

–published 1921
–203 pages, Modern Library
–4/5 stars

“I am D-503. I am the Builder of the Integral. I am only of of the mathematicians of the One State. My pen, more accustomed to mathematical figures, is not up to the task of creating the music of unison and rhyme. I will just attempt to record what I see, what I think–or, more exactly, what we think. (Yes, that’s write: we. And let that also be the title of these records: We) So these records will be manufactured from the stuff of our life, from the mathematically perfect life of the One State, and, as such, might they become, inadvertently, regardless of my intentions, an epic poem? Yes–I believe so and know so.”

The early 1920s: a time when the term ‘science fiction’ had not been coined, a time when dystopian fiction was arguably nonexistent, a time when a Russian engineer and author, Yevgeny Zamyatin, wrote a thinly veiled satire on the state of his mother country that would not see print in the Soviet Union, except through illegal copies, until 1988. That novel was We and from start to finish this brief but emotional tale feels like a timeless piece of literature whose voice is as contemporary as works published yesterday while maintaining the sophisticated air of a true classic.

We is a Modern Library classic that caught my eye several months ago at my local Barnes and Noble. It stood out from the normal science fiction fare simply because its presentation was that of a literary classic rather than a space-faring adventure. It remained on my radar despite the fact that I did not pick it up. A few weeks back I found myself at my part-time job without the current novel I was enjoying. Not wanting to get involved in something lengthy I decided to give this intriguing 203 page novel a try. The fact that I read the first 110 pages at one sitting and completed it the next day is a testament to how thoroughly engrossing this eighty-six year old work is.

The quote with which I started this review is very near the beginning of the opening chapter and expresses exactly what this novel is: a diary by a singular member of the One State, the earth of the future, whose evolutionary growth from the barbarism of the ‘freedom’ of the Ancients in the twentieth century to the measured and controlled glory of not having freedom is being chronicled for the purpose of being launched on the spaceship, the Integral. It is our narrator D-503’s hope that this record will indoctrinate those on other planets to whom the Integral is sent so that they may too find the bliss of an ordered life:

“As I write this: I feel my cheeks burn. I suppose this resembles what a woman experiences when she first hears a new pulse within her–the pulse of a tiny, unseeing, mini-being. This text is me, and simultaneously not me. And it will feed for many months on my sap, my blood, and then, in anguish, it will be ripped from my self and placed at the foot of the One State.

But I am ready and willing, just as every one–or almost every one of us. I am ready.”

Yevgeny Zamyatin has been said to the be the father of dystopian fiction with the birth of his novel, We, and it is hard to argue against it. As I read this work visions of the films Gattaca, The Island, Equilibrium and the like filled my mind. I sat amazed that something written so long ago could be the little known precursor of the type of fiction: 1984 (which Orwell admits to writing because of the inspiration and influence of We), the works of Philip K. Dick, etc. that are the foundation for so many of the works of literature and films that many of us are fans of today.

The reader cannot help but feel cold and calculating terror as D-503 (the fact that none of them had names, just designations, is chilling) relates with almost psychotic bliss the joys of living a life that is entirely controlled by the government. The future in which D-503 resides consists of a life regimented down to mathematical precision. A mere two hours a day are set aside for individual activity and even that is somewhat controlled. There is no privacy…all apartments are identical and are glass…the only moments of privacy are pre-scheduled sexual encounters in which couples are allowed to close their blinds during their moments of intimacy, turning sex into as much a function of the One State as anything else.

What is so intriguing and interesting about We is that the reader is able to witness the turmoil of the central character as he encounters I-330, a woman who is at once mysterious and dangerous. I-330 excites D-503’s passions while making him more determined to devote himself to the ideals of the One State. It is this confusion…love?…that begins to tear at the fabric of D-503’s state constructed persona and it is this unraveling that makes this story so compelling. And yet it is more than that. Zamyatin’s writing is rhythmic and musical in its own fashion, so much so that I enjoyed reading this story as much for the lyricism of the text as for the story itself. Both Zamyatin and his protagonist speak from an engineer’s perspective. Their language is measured and put down in ordered, mathematical patterns that make for a unique reading experience. I found myself most captivated by D-503’s attempts to describe the overwhelming feelings that he has in his encounters with I-330 as these are the times where he becomes most poetic:

“On the corner in the white fog: blood–a slit made with a sharp knife–it was her lips.”

And then further:

“She comes up close, leans on my shoulder, and we are one, she flows into me and I know: this was the necessary part. I know this with every nerve, with every hair, with every sweet and almost painful beat of my heart. And I submitted to this ‘necessity’ with joy. A piece of iron probably submits just as joyfully to its unavoidable, precise laws and fastens itself to a magnet. A rock, thrown up, wavers for a second and then falls downward, headlong to the ground. And a man, after his agony, exhaling finally, for the last time, dies.”

Like any diary, much of it contains the observations of D-503’s daily life, and yet since his intention is to make One State disciples of the galaxies’ other inhabitants, and because of the unforseen complications of meeting I-330, a story emerges that keeps the reader turning the pages. Unlike most of Hollywood’s tales of ultimate governmental control, I never once felt that We was going to have a trite and happy ending. Perhaps I felt this way because it was written in a very dark political climate by a Russian author who would eventually be exiled for this work. Instead I felt the presence of dread looming behind every page, that same sense of dread that D-503 experiences as his life begins to spiral out of its well-ordered control. Yevgeny Zamyatin manages to infuse this tale with humor and excitement and passion and yet throughout keeps the tension high and the sense of foreboding palpable.

We is certainly not for everyone. It is at once a futuristic science fiction adventure, a political satire, and a work of profound classical literature. It is a book whose hints of dread are often powerful enough to form complete images in the reader’s mind of just how terrifying it would be to live in this sort of future, without having to spell out exactly what is going on behind the scenes of the One State. It is a tragic and eerie tale with echoes of hope and promise. I believe this book would appeal to lover’s of classical literature as much as to science fiction fans who enjoy looking at the history of where some of our more beloved dystopian authors got their inspiration. I also recommend that after reading this book a person reads the foreward by Bruce Sterling and the notes by the translator Natasha Randall. Those sections, along with a perusal of the Wikipedia page for We, make for very interesting reading after one has partaken of this work. This book has a history and depth of symbolism that is every bit as intriguing to discover as is the story itself. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did.

10 thoughts on “Guest Blogger Reviews featuring Stainless Steel Droppings

  1. Pingback: Stainless Steel Droppings » We ~Yevgeny Zamyatin

  2. One of the things I didn’t mention in the review but found fascinating was the way the cover art has the whole ‘we’, ‘me’ graphic going on. It was most certainly intentional as the protagonists’ struggle is all about his battle with ‘we’ vs ‘me’.

  3. Well, Carl, what is there to say…another incredibly intriguing review. Already went and checked my library’s website…they don’t have it, so onto my wish list it went. I’m quite tempted to go read the Wikipedia entry, but suppose I should take your advice and wait until after I’ve read it.

    And what a cool site this appears to be…I’m off to explore.

  4. I would wait Debi. I certainly found the book interesting. Not sure if you or anyone else will or not but I sure hope that anyone who reads it comes back here and gives in their ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ and the reasons why.

  5. Bother, bother, both. My library doesn’t have it either. Why??? Anyway, I’ll be on the look out for it. It sounds like something I’d definitely want to read at some point. I tend to love dystopian novels. And it would be cool to read something by the “father” of this genre.

  6. This book impressed me a lot! I found it in a bookstore in St. Petersburg, and I originally bought it just because it was a book in English for only 30 rubles (about a dollar) and most books in English were crazy expensive. But then I got really into it on the train to Moscow, and when I finished I was very impressed. Zamyatin certainly knows how to draw the reader in, to make them realise the joys the living in a society where you barely have to decide anything. I agreed with the review cited on Wikipedia that mentioned its ‘ironic humour’ as well.

  7. Sounds very interesting! I especially like the quotes. Those were poetic. I’m going to add this one to my wish as well. Thanks Carl!

  8. it sounds really hard, hard in a way that is normally a bit much for me. but what interests me greatly is how committed the author is to representing this world and its ideology.

    also, i love it when books have a lot of history behind them, when lots has been said about it.

    and i also like dystopian stuff very much.

    and say “gattaca” and my little ears prick up like a cat’s! 🙂

    so i’ll definitely be looking into this…

    thanks for the cool review!

  9. Pingback: Books to Keep You Up at Night « A Striped Armchair

  10. Pingback: Stainless Steel Droppings » Blog Archive » 2008: A Literary Year in Review

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