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Book Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

December 9, 2021 Leave a comment
Image of a book cover. A floating eye looks down a city. It notes there is an introduction by Margaret Atwood.

Summary:
In a glass-enclosed city of perfectly straight lines, ruled over by an all-powerful “Benefactor,” the citizens of the totalitarian society of OneState are regulated by spies and secret police; wear identical clothing; and are distinguished only by a number assigned to them at birth. That is, until D-503, a mathematician who dreams in numbers, makes a discovery: he has an individual soul. He can feel things. He can fall in love. And, in doing so, he begins to dangerously veer from the norms of his society, becoming embroiled in a plot to destroy OneState and liberate the city.

Set in the twenty-sixth century AD, We was the forerunner of canonical works from George Orwell and Alduous Huxley, among others. It was suppressed for more than sixty years in Russia and remains a resounding cry for individual freedom, as well as a powerful, exciting, and vivid work of science fiction that still feels relevant today. Bela Shayevich’s bold new translation breathes new life into Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal work and refreshes it for our current era. 

Review:
The history of this book is fascinating. Smuggled out of Soviet Russia and only ever published in translation in exile from Russia. Published before 1984 and Brave New World and said to have been at least some level of influence on both. So it’s absolutely an important read from the perspective of scifi history.

A what-if version of automation and industrialization. These successes have led to a society where humans no longer have mothers, fathers, or even real names. Instead they have numbers. D-503 is our narrator. He’s designing a rocket ship for the space program. He falls in with I-330, a woman working with a kind of back to nature resistance.

I’m not sure I liked either society depicted. It kind of reminded me of one of the societies depicted in The Time Machine that I didn’t like all that much either. But I was definitely moved and engaged and wanted to find out what happened. (The ending is bleak. I’m not sure why I hoped for anything else!)

One thing that made this a challenging read is that D-503 refers to I-330 as I. This made some sentences confusing since it’s also narrated in the first person from his point of view. It was not unusual for me to have to re-start a sentence after realizing it was actually about I-330 and not D-503 or vice versa. It’s unclear to me how much of this is a translation choice and how much of it is authentic to the book as originally written in Russian.

Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way is how the Black character is described. There’s a large, recurring focus on the size of his lips. On the one hand, the depiction of this character is very open-minded and equal. He and D-503 are both sort of married to the same woman, know it, and all consider themselves friends. But, on the other hand, the focus on his lips repeatedly was jarring. I’m again, not sure if this was in the original Russian or an awkward translation.

A creative world building element that I enjoyed is how this totalitarian regime keeps watch on its citizens. This was written before much technology, and so the citizens all live in glass homes. They have to get a special ticket to be able to pull the blinds. These are only issued for sanctioned sexual encounters. Thus to have private meetings, you must get tickets to have sexual relations with the person you want to meet with.

Recommended to those with an interest in the trajectory of scifi dystopias over time or with an interest in Russian literature.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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What Public Libraries Should Be

February 2, 2010 8 comments

There is a debate going on about what public libraries should be.  So far, the librarians seem to be presenting a near united front, repackaging the library as a social place.  A place filled with programs such as speed-dating, Rock Band night, rent a person events, and more.  A place where you can rent newly released movies and videogames.  A place where, “Books are being pushed to the side figuratively and literally.” (source)  The few detractors from this mindset are generally portrayed as old, crotchety patrons who just don’t understand the times.

Well, I am a young librarian, and I don’t like where public libraries are headed.  To be clear, when I say young, I’m 23 years old.  Additionally, although I spent one summer working in a public library, most of my experience is in academic and medical libraries.  However, I think this puts me in the semi-unique position of understanding some of what public librarians deal with, but also being a member of the general populace they are seeking to serve.

I’ve made some rumblings about how I don’t agree with certain aspects of this modernization of the library.  The response from other librarians is generally a truly puzzled, “What’s wrong with it?”

What’s wrong with it?  When did public libraries turn into community centers instead of centers for life-long learning?  In a democracy, it is vitally important that the populace seeks to self-educate, to question, to delve into matters themselves.  A key element of that is literacy, and of course it is important to draw reluctant people into literacy in creative ways.  To this end, I’m supportive of libraries containing genre fiction, romance novels, graphic novels, etc…  However, whatever happened to the materials that truly make people think?  I used to frequent the public library, but last year, I just got sick of the junk I was seeing in the “nonfiction” section.  Autobiographies of the most recent reality star and not a single one of Albert Einstein, for instance.

Public libraries are not only supposed to encourage literacy but also thought and learning.  True, deep thought about serious issues.  I remember stumbling upon a book in high school in my public library about the controversy surrounding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  It presented a fair portrayal of multiple sides of the controversy, and I was floored to see such intelligent debate.  It made me think about the mores and ideals I was raised with, and questioning their own validity in much the same way.  This is the kind of experience literate patrons should be having at a public library, not digging through book after book about the last 20 years of pop culture and coming up empty-handed.  If I, a person trained in reference, can’t find thought-provoking books, what makes anyone think that untrained patrons will just happen to stumble upon them?

The public library is also supposed to be about equality.  Anyone who lives in the district can have a card and access the sources.  Now though we’re seeing libraries hosting various features that patrons must pay an additional fee to use.  An example of this is the Nevada libraries that now have Redbox vending machines.  Patrons must pay $1 a night, plus tax, to rent a DVD.  Some say this is fine, but I say, what about the homeless kids who come into this place that purports to support the idea that educating yourself is a right, only to see more things they can’t afford?  I’m sure it is disheartening, and it is contrary to the principles of a public library.

It sickens me to see the public library going from a place revered in the community as a place of literacy, learning, and equality to a bastion of the non-thinking, pop culture junk we’re fed by those who don’t want us to actually better ourselves.  You may as well be handing out Soma with the library cards, and if you don’t know what Soma is, try reading Brave New World.