No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction

By Eric S. Rabkin; Martin H. Greenberg et al. | Go to book overview

4
Zamiatin's We

Gorman Beauchamp

There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes only once, while a book explodes a thousand times. Zamiatin

In 1920 the Czech writer Karel CČapek was completing a play that would provide the world with a new word and a new nightmare: the play was R. U. R., the word was robot, and the nightmare was of man's destruction by his own machines. Faced with the imperatives of modern technology, writes one critic of CČapek's play, man must either "give way to the machine, or he himself must become a machine."1 While CČapek in R.U.R. portrays the former alternative, Eugene Zamiatin in We, written in the same year, presents the latter: the projection of a futuristic society that transforms man himself into a machine, a human robot. We is not only Zamiatin's most important work, but is arguably the most effective of all the dystopian depictions of the technological abolition of man.2

The dystopian novel, in formulating its warning about the future, fuses two modern fears: the fear of utopia and the fear of technology. If, as Zamiatin's fellow émigré Nicholas Berdyaev claims, in that passage made famous as epigraph to Brave New World, twentiethcentury society is moving toward utopia, then it is doing so through the agency of modern technology. The utopian ideations of the past, that once seemed impossible of historical actualization, appear in our century not only possible, but perhaps inevitable, given the increasing array of techniques for social control made available by our science. As these venerable idola -- Plato's Republic, say, or Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun or Etienne Cabet's Voyage to Icaria -- threatened, in modernized form, to replace the societies they had criticized, the image of utopia loomed more ominous, its darker implications for human freedom and initiative more apparent. What could be entertained on paper with detachment proved more disturb-

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