We by Evgeny Zamyatin (1921)

We is always referenced as the godfather of dystopias, set in a perfect future state where people are known as numbers, and everyone functions according to a regulated Table of Hours. But what lies in the wild country beyond? Our hero, D-503, awakens from his zombie life via his obsession with a mysterious woman, I-330, who reveals to him his true nature, while around them OneState collapses into rebellion and counter-revolution.

That’s the plot, but the real experience of reading this book is bewilderment at its wild and hysterical style, 220 pages of continuous hysteria and feverish delirium as D-503 hallucinates his affair, the streets turn purple, his dreams become real, he obsesses about lips and ears, and has wild visions.

The actual story – the sequence of events – is sometimes impossible  to make out through the feverish prose. Somewhere I read a suggestion that Zamyatin was trying to write an expressionist prose, full of fevers and terrors. Maybe more accurate would be that the style attempts in prose what El Lissitsky and Rodchenko were doing in Suprematism and Constructivism, creating abrupt lines, energies of clashing perspectives, vibrant colours.

Orwell acknowledged that Nineteen Eighty-Four is indebted to We, but Orwell’s novel is terrifying because it’s so plausible, is imagined down to the tiniest realistic detail, nothing like Zamyatin’s deliriums.

On a completely different tack it’s extraordinary to think that a Petersburg intellectual could create such a sustained flight of fancy while Don Cossacks were killing each other with axes (Sholokhov) and the Red Army in Poland was murdering Jews with clubs and sabers (Babel). What a terrible, terrifying time.

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Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957)

30 December 2011

Half way through reading Dr Zhivago in the Hayward and Harari translation (1958), in a lovely yellow-spined old Flamingo imprint. (Ann Pasternak Slater wrote a Guardian article comparing this translation with the newer one by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear).

  1. DZ is divided into short numbered sections, often only a page long, like snapshots. In fact it could be compared to a photo album, a collection of key moments in the lives of the protagonists.
  2. There are more protagonists than in the film, and their relationships are more complex. It fills me with admiration for the screenwriter, Robert Bolt, who reduced the complex novel to the essential elements of the love story and brought its disparate elements into balance.
  3. I’m dismayed by the casual violence the characters display. Whether it’s the children fighting in the lily pond, or the iron master beating his apprentice, or Komarovsky beating his dog, a high level of verbal and physical violence seemed to be acceptable at all levels of the Russian society that Pasternak portrays. In tandem, there is little or no humour, no understatement or irony. People seem to tell each other exactly what’s on their minds and it’s always primal and immediate. There’s no detachment. The anger, verbal aggression and low-level violence of the pre-revolution prepares you and, arguably, prepared the Russian people, for the sickening violence of the revolution and civil war.

Tales from the Don (1924)

December 21, 2011

On the Tube read the first story in Mikhail Sholokov’s Tales from the Don, ‘The Birthmark’ (1924) and was so shocked and upset I couldn’t read the next one. Reminded me of the early Hemingway short stories in that it’s about taciturn men in extremis, and short and brutal; but the actual style is much more descriptive and adjectival. 284 pages of brutal Russian civil war stories.

Picked it up in a second hand book shop, and it looks like this volume of stories and Sholokov’s famous novels, And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home To the Sea are all out of print. Sholokov won the Nobel Prize in 1965. In the coming weeks I guess I’ll discover why he’s slipped so comprehensively off the map…

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925)

A short, sharp parable on early Soviet life. A stray Moscow dog, Sharik, is adopted by a maverick scientist, Professor Preobrazhensky, who transplants into it the pituitary gland and testes of a proletarian killed in a brawl.

The satire is not only against the bolsheviks but also the professor who runs a dodgy ‘rejuvenation clinic’ i.e. injecting rich old men and women with glands to reactivate their sex lives, a symbol of the clapped-out way of life of the ‘former classes’.

The fact that the transfer recipient is a rough, drunk worker is important because the dog slowly mutates into a semi-man, with the worst combination of chav manners and dog habits, to the horror of the scientist and his bourgeois household.

Redolent of an H.G. Wells short story in its amateurishness: a scientist develops world-beating procedure in his dining room!

But all flavoured with the alien habits and speech patterns of Russia, a culture, I have always fouind to be deceptively similar but in reality profoundly different from ours – AND with an extra layer of strangeness because the whole thing is a satire on the apparent failure of the Bolshevik experiment to create the new ‘Soviet’ man – an experiment, Bulgakov’s fable implies, which is doomed to a crude and violent failure.

The movie adaptation

A 1988 Soviet movie, Sobachye Serdtse, was made (in sepia) by Vladimir Bortko. A number of sequences were shot from an unusually low dog’s point of view.

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Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 – The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis

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