A very interesting book, written in dazzling, synesthetic prose. (The language is actually so vivid as to be distracting from the plot, which is proba...moreA very interesting book, written in dazzling, synesthetic prose. (The language is actually so vivid as to be distracting from the plot, which is probably intentional, since the narrator spends much of the novel feeling overwhelmed and confused).
The story is set about a thousand years in the future, in a technocratic, totalitarian One State that is essentially a worldwide Soviet Union taken to its logical extreme. The narrator is a mathematician numbered (nobody has names --- they have serial numbers) D-503. (Even though individual names have been abolished, though, I still detected a gender-delineating convention in these alphanumeric signifiers: male characters' "numbers" start with consonants; female characters' with vowels.) D-503 has designed, and is supervising the building of, a spaceship with which the One State hopes to colonize other worlds, and show them (these other worlds are assumed to be populated) the glory of Communism. However, after meeting a beautiful woman with revolutionary leanings, D-503 notices his loyalty to the One State wavering. He suffers a crisis of conscience, vacillating wildly between loyalty to the One State and to his mysterious new lover. His feelings for her are strong, stronger than anything he's ever felt before, but the One State is all he's ever known, and until meeting her he's been absolutely sure that it is the best of all possible governments. He is also constantly tempted by one of the State's secret police, who follows him around and whom he thinks of, naively, as a guardian angel, and by advertisements in the State Gazette for a new surgical procedure that guarantees happiness and moral certitude by removing the imagination.
The preface to this book, written by its translator, Mirra Ginsburg, claims that We is a superior work to Orwell's 1984, particularly in the realm of psychological realism. I am not sure I believe that; I've read 1984 several times, and am always newly struck by the subtlety of Orwell's political and psychological understanding. He made up mechanisms in his totalitarian society by which natural human inclinations toward creativity, independence, love and friendship could be subverted or worked around to guarantee that no popular resistance movement could ever take root; Yevgeny Zamyatin's tale is set so far in the future that such elegant solutions are no longer necessary for the most part. There was also no idea in We that seemed to me to have anywhere near the power, complexity and fiendish elegance of 1984's "Newspeak."
Besides 1984, other later works We reminded me of were Brave New World (in the philosophical tug-of-war between freedom and happiness that forms the central issue in both books), Ayn Rand's Anthem (another futuristic totalitarian dystopia in which people are numbered instead of named, and in which romantic love leads a gifted male citizen to rebel), and the short story "The Cold Equations" (chiefly for the language --- both rely a lot on mathematical figures of speech --- but also for the crudely utilitarian ethics espoused by characters in both works).
There's an important difference between We and Anthem, though. The philosophical argument advanced by We sets up a pair of opposing values: Freedom vs. Happiness, and Reason vs. Passion. Reason here is allied with happiness/unfreedom; a perfectly rational person, who acts always (and only) in his own material best interests, will not necessarily value freedom particularly highly. In this book, as in Brave New World, freedom is often described as a burden or a curse, and having some wise, all-knowing authority make all your choices for you ensures a better outcome than you, mere mortal, could guarantee yourself if you were master of your fate. The State here is highly technologically, medically and scientifically advanced, so it's taken as given that it really has worked out the best way for people to live. The issue, of course, is that people are *NOT* perfectly rational, and those irrational parts of us, in Zamyatin's view, are not dispensible imperfections to be smoothed away by State Science, but are actually a crucial part of human nature. For Rand, reason is everything, and reason always points her heroes toward autonomy and self-sufficiency. Her State makes errors, assigning a superintelligent man to a life sweeping streets to prove an ideological point (i.e., everyone is absolutely equal, so work assignments should be given randomly rather than tailored to individual interests and aptitudes) and thereby guaranteeing his restless unhappiness. Zamyatin's State would have that character designing spacecraft, and thus putting his intelligence and imagination to purposeful, rational use rather than idly dreaming and exploring.
Thus the last line of this novel --- "Reason must prevail" --- takes on a much more ambiguous, sinister tone than it would in Rand's novel.(less)
**spoiler alert** In the myth of Theseus, the king of Crete, Minos, commands his captive invetor, Daedalus, to build a maze so intricate that nobody c...more**spoiler alert** In the myth of Theseus, the king of Crete, Minos, commands his captive invetor, Daedalus, to build a maze so intricate that nobody could escape from it without help. In this maze he places the Minotaur, a man-bull hybrid who eats people. (The minotaur is also, I think, the king's wife's son. By a bull. Yep, we're definitely in a Greek myth here). Every year, Minos demands tribute from lesser kings (Theseus's father Aegeus among them) in the form of a shipload of treasure and seven youths and seven maidens, chosen by lot, to go into the maze to be eaten by the Minotaur. One year, Theseus volunteers to take the place of one of the youths, meets Minos's daughter Ariadne, who falls in love with him and agrees to help him by giving him a ball of string he can use to thread his way through the maze. He succeeds in killing the Minotaur and escaping the maze, but his father believes he has died and kills himself even as Theseus is on his way back.
Very few of these details are conserved in Victor Pelevin's hilarious, thought-provoking and ultimately baffling retelling of the story. We meet eight characters: Ariadne, and seven pseudonymous strangers who find themselves in different hotel rooms sitting at computers. They are all confused as to where they are and how they got there, and find their chat (over some kind of in-house intranet) is being filtered to prevent the exchange of concrete, real-world facts (names, places of origin, addresses, etc.) and also swear words. The form of the novel is the online dialogue between these eight characters, replying to the single message posted on the sole online forum they can access (as I mentioned, they're not on the Internet, but an intranet): I shall construct a labyrinth in which I can lose myself, together with anyone who tries to find me - who said this and about what?
Ariadne, who posted the message, acts as a sort of guide through the "labyrinth" that seems to be both physical (the hotel) and psychological. The characters explore their literal and figurative environments in different ways: a know-it-all type named "Monstradamus" uses his academic knowledge to parse the hidden symbolic and etymological meanings of the few clues that are present; "Romeo" and "Isolde" jointly decide to leave their rooms and try to find each other, periodically reporting to the group what they find; "Nutscracker" uses his background as a computer programmer to try to understand what he comes to believe is the virtual reality they've entered; "Sartrik" gets drunk and disparages everyone else's suggestions; Ariadne, who seems to be a lucid dreamer, dreams about meeting a dwarf who explains the labyrinth and the Minotaur to her; and "UGLI 666" sees religious symbolism in everything around her, and decides that her imprisonment is a penance for her sins, which she must endure before finally meeting God.
Nobody gets very far in their attempt to make sense of the maze and identify Theseus and the Minotaur. (Monstradamus, interestingly enough, is named as both). Ariadne dreams of a "helmet of horror," which her diminutive guide tells her represents the Minotaur's mind: a machine that generates past, present and future from the immediate past. (The "stream of impressions", which come from both outside the helmet of horror and within its "horns of plenty", is diffracted through the "separator labyrinth" and changed into "bubbles of hope," which are enriched by memories stored in the horns of plenty --- Monstradamus is the first to discover that this process does not actually transform anything, since the stream of impressions and the contents of the horns of plenty are all memories --- past --- so logically nothing would seem able to enter the helmet of horror at all). Much time is spent discussing and speculating on the nature of the helmet of horror, and the implication of Ariadne's dream that they are all trapped inside a virtual reality, perhaps all wearing helmets of horror that filter and shape their perceptions.
I did not really understand the ending, except in the most abstract sense. What happens is that each character hears a loud knocking on their doors, and the doors are broken down and a stranger enters their rooms, his speech appearing on their screens under the name of "Theseus." He believes them all to be minotaurs, and they all shout "MOO!" at him. (Several times near the end, the characters all speak a nonsensical phrase in unison; it seemed to me like something was taking possession of them all when it happened, since it did not flow out of their conversation and clearly perturbed them). My understanding, at the end, was that the story started over again, with the characters now assigning themselves the role of Minotaurs (as opposed to Athenian youths and maidens). Thus the story is not a story, but a single arc of a(n endlessly recursive) circle.
Other reviewers have said that this book is not worth the effort it takes to understand what the heck is going on in it. I don't agree --- for all its inscrutability, the story reads amazingly quickly. (I finished it in maybe two or three hours). It reads quickly, the ideas flow well enough, and the dialogue (except for the occasional trippy descriptive passage --- lay off the acid, okay Ariadne? --- or random outburst) is laugh-out-loud funny.
Pelevin's introduction, "Mythcellaneous," a discussion of what myth is, and of the modern mythology of progress (in a self-consciously nonlinear narrative; I C wut u did there, Pelevin!) is also worth reading; it's lucid, interesting and witty in a more subdued way than the wacky, sometimes-profane dialogue.
Skip it if you hate authors who play tricks on their readers and characters; if you like a challenge, or even don't mind one, check it out. It's like "Neuromancer" meets "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."(less)