The shining blue city state

Luminous blue skies, the sunlight suffused through the slightest watery haze. A refreshing, gentle breeze. Shining towers, domes, cupolas and pyramids of shimmering steel and glass. Order. Security. Full employment. A highly skilled, technologically advanced economy.

A convincing dystopia must - in some respects - attract as well as repel. During a recent holiday I finally got round to reading a book that's been on my list for some time, 'We', by the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin. (Apocalyptic sci-fi: the perfect poolside reading for normal people like me.) Completed in 1920 it's generally considered the first major dystopian novel, predating Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' and George Orwell's '1984' by several years. Reading 'We' it's clear how much those two great works owe to Zamyatin. I liked it so much I thought I'd write a few words about it here.

Zamyatin wrote it in Moscow in the midst of the 1917 Russian Revolution. That was quite possibly the last time in history when the high modernist dream of a designing a perfect society still seemed credible. New theories in the emerging fields of psychology and the social sciences tempted many intellectuals to dare to hope that the workings of human society could be understood and engineered in much the same way as the laws of nature. Darwin had shown how the human race had evolved over time. If that was so, then perhaps its future evolution could be managed? Freudian psychoanalysis seemed to have uncovered hitherto mysterious principles governing the operations of the unconscious mind, which, therefore, might be capable of manipulation. And Marx's supposed discovery of the economic laws governing the unfolding of history promised to elevate politics to the status of a science: those laws had shown that capitalism's collapse and its succession by socialist utopia was inevitable, but the process could perhaps be helped along by a vanguard of Marxist intellectuals whose sure grasp of the principles of dialectical materialism qualified them to facilitate revolution and oversee a serene transition to a state of universal brotherhood.

Zamyatin understood both the appeal and danger of those soaring hopes. His novel, set a thousand years in the future, imagines a shining city state that in many respects fulfils the promises of Soviet propaganda. Class distinctions have been abolished, and there is perfect equality between the sexes. Rational economic planning has replaced the free for all of the capitalist marketplace. Calm faith in scientific progress has replaced hope in the irrational metaphysics of traditional religion. Palaces and slums have been replaced by monumental modernist architecture (the appearance of Zamyatin's city sounds rather like contemporary Dubai). Even the vagaries of the weather have been brought under control by technologies encompassing the city within a gentle micro climate of perpetual sunshine and cerulean skies. The city is ringed by a transparent 'Green Wall' protecting its ordered world from the 'chaos' outside (perhaps the inspiration for the 'wastelands' outside the Megacities of the Judge Dredd stories).

The novel's hero is a model citizen, a mathematician dedicated to the pure Platonic beauty of geometry and algebra who - certainly when we first meet him - rejoices in the seamlessness of his environment: the everyday human world of the city state is no less ordered than his abstract field of study, operating according to similarly logical principles. As yet another crystal clear day dawns he writes:

But then, the sky! Blue, untainted by a single cloud (the Ancients had such barbarous tastes given that their poets could have been inspired by such stupid, sloppy, silly-lingering clumps of vapour). I love - and I'm certain that I'm not mistaken if I say we love - skies like this, sterile and flawless! On days like these, the whole world is blown from the same shatterproof, everlasting glass as the glass of the Green Wall [the barrier between the city and the chaos of the outside world] and of all our structures. On days like these, you can see to the very blue depths of things, to their unknown surfaces, those marvellous expressions of mathematical quality - which exist in even the most usual and everyday objects.

He describes his state's motivating impulse in mathematical terms, the conquering of the concept of infinitude, the division of the raw given complexity of things into ordered, manageable segments:

I am not afraid of the word "delimited": the worthiest human efforts are those intellectual pursuits that specifically seek the uninterrupted delimiting of infinity into convenient, easily digestible portions - into differentials. The divine beauty of my medium - mathematics - is exactly that.

But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that this is in fact a nightmare world, a world in which the desire for order has become compulsive, an end in itself. The pursuit of objectivity has all but driven out subjectivity. There is no democracy here, just a collective 'we', overseen by a 'Benefactor' (a sure forerunner for Orwell's Big Brother) and an elite group of 'Guardians'. The shimmering buildings in which the citizens live are clean and beautiful, but are constructed entirely of glass: there is no privacy, blinds permitted only at specified hours. The schedule of each day is regulated to the minute, everyone rising, working, dining and retiring at the same time. All wear the same uniform, and nobody has a name, just a number; the novel's central character is identified only as 'D-503'. There are designated 'walking hours', when the citizens parade through the streets in synchronised groups of four. D-503 asks:

Why is this dance beautiful? The answer: because it is non-free movement, because the whole profound point of this dance lies precisely in its absolute, aesthetic subordination, its perfect non-freedom.

Much of the culture that predated the founding of the city has been abolished, but the moral of one old story is remembered, the myth of the Fall told in the Book of Genesis:

Those two in paradise stood before a choice: happiness without freedom or freedom without happiness; a third choice wasn't given. They, the blockheads, they chose freedom - and then what? Understandably, for centuries, they longed for fetters… we are simple-hearted innocents, like Adam and Eve. No more confusion about good and evil: everything is very simple, heavenly, childishly simple. The Benefactor, the Machine, the Cube, the Gas Bell Jar, the Guardians - all these are good, all these are majestic, wonderful, noble, sublime, crystal-clear.

Zamyatin's city, like all utopias, is an attempt to recreate the logic of the Garden of Eden, a place of perfect order and safety, unburdened by the responsibility of choice:

Indeed: is there a place where happiness is wiser, more cloudless, than in this miraculous world? Steel rusts; the ancient God created an ancient human capable of mistakes - and, therefore, He made a mistake Himself. The multiplication table is wiser, more absolute than the ancient God: it never - you understand - it never makes mistakes. And there is nothing happier than digits, living according to the well-constructed, eternal laws of the multiplication table.

But even in this horrible, beautiful glass world, traces of subjectivity, potential disorder, remain, which as the story develops begin to undermine the city's sterile calm. I recommend you read it to find out how. Certainly one not to miss if you've read and enjoyed '1984'.

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