I have just finished reading Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We, one of the forerunners of the satirical dystopian genre best known for novels such as Brave New World or 1984. It was written in 1921 in response to Zamyatin’s experiences with the revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917 as well as working at the Tyne shipyards where he witnessed the collectivization of labor.
Having read Orwell and Huxley, I certainly saw the influence We had, admitted or otherwise. Zamyatin’s secret police simply see everything because all walls are made of glass and sex is state-controlled along with every other part of life, including labor along the lines of the ideas of F.W. Taylor. Emotion and imagination are considered the enemies of happiness and are considered illegal. The novel is one of the first examples of a post-apocalyptic landscape with the cause implied as weapons of mass destruction; clearly atomic weapons did not exist in 1921, but having experienced the Great War, Zamyatin couldn’t fail to see the growth in size of bombs and other weapons.
Zamyatin’s primary judgment regarding the State of the novel (and the early Soviet Union of Lenin) is that state-controlled, emotionless, beauty-less life works against human nature. His viewpoint character, named D-503, believes himself mad because he has night dreams, feels attracted to a very rebellious woman (I-330), and can’t bring himself to report her and her revolutionary organization (Mephi). Even as he smuggles his lover and her unborn child out of the city illegally, his mind shifts irrationally between his basic human instincts and his “love” for the United State. One of the most impressive ways in which the author illustrates this is through the use of numbers: D-503, as a scientist/mathematician, thinks of everything in terms of numbers. The spaceship he is building is called the Integral and thinks of unknowns as variables and love and death as functions. What sets off his paranoia regarding his mental health is the concept of “imaginary numbers,” i.e. the square root of -1. He knows such a number must exist, because all integers have square roots, but it is entirely unknown. This is the first inkling he gets of “imagination.” While these mathematical concepts aren’t exactly kosher to mathematicians, when thought of abstractly they are very artistic, and help to visualize Zamyatin’s idea that life cannot be made entirely rational, by any higher power.
I won’t give away the ending (though it is remarkably similar to 1984), but seeing it as a precursor to it’s more famous genre comrades gave a much more impressive light. It certainly has it’s shortcomings (it breaks nearly all the writing rules I was taught in my PW classes), but as a pure work of art it is still one of the most important pieces of fiction of the twentieth century.
It has been announced recently that China, who traditionally has not been particularly active in the space race, will make a strong push in the next five years to become a power in space. It seems, as did the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960’s and 70’s, that economic domination fuels space exploration, more than a bit obviously. As both of the two Cold War powers scale back their space exploration due to budgeting, the Chinese are beginning to use their newfound worldwide wealth to build up their space industry. By the end of 2016 it plans to launch space laboratories, manned spaceships, and be technologically prepared to build space stations.
Conventionally (and especially in my favorite era), science fiction writers have extrapolated one of three scenarios for the exploration/colonization of space: either a two-country, Cold-War era race between the successor states to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. or a worldwide effort, by a cooperative effort by many states (as inspired by the International Space Station) or by a future one-state world.
Now, with the rise of this Chinese effort (along with the addition of space efforts by other countries such as Japan, the European Union, and India, as well as efforts by private companies) we must examine the possibility that space could be explored by many separate entities, with different technologies, goals, and ideals. It could change much about the way diplomacy works: dealing with states occupying different planets, the distances between them, and the way war would work in space (which has certainly been thought about in many different ways).
This Chinese effort has certainly made me think about the changes to the way state-building and diplomacy in space would happen. This, along with future development, should mark a shift in reaction for science-fiction as a whole.
- China Reveals Space Plans Through 2016 (foxnews.com)
- China Space Stations: Program Gains Momentum (huffingtonpost.com)
- China unveils ambitious plan for space exploration – CNN International (edition.cnn.com)
- China is Planning Manned Moon Mission (manolith.com)