STUMP » Articles » Mornings with Meep: Dystopias » 8 July 2018, 13:57

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Mornings with Meep: Dystopias  


8 July 2018, 13:57

Here’s the video:

Here’s the direct link.


Details on Zamyatin’s situation with his novel:

Despite having been a prominent Old Bolshevik, Zamyatin was deeply disturbed by the policies pursued by the CPSU following the October Revolution. In 1921, We became the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board. Ultimately, Zamyatin arranged for We to be smuggled to the West for publication. The subsequent outrage this sparked within the Party and the Union of Soviet Writers led directly to Zamyatin’s successful request for exile from his homeland. Due to his use of literature to criticize Soviet society, Zamyatin has been referred to as one of the first Soviet dissidents.

I have been learning about Soviet dissidents through a variety of activities, and it’s been interesting to me how many had been true believers re: socialism and communism… and then noticed what actually was happening.

Kind of like Orwell, who had been a socialist… until he really found out what happened. It wasn’t what was hoped, and all sorts of things had to be done to try to keep the system going.

This is the audiobook version I listened to, which was the translation by Clarence Brown. Here is the paperback version of that translation.

One thing I liked was the introduction by the translator — Zamyatin and the Persian Rooster. And the more I think about it, the more I think it was the translator who screwed up the line about the square root of negative one. The Wiki article on the novel backs me up:

The novel uses mathematical concepts symbolically. The spaceship that D-503 is supervising the construction of is called the Integral, which he hopes will “integrate the grandiose cosmic equation”. D-503 also mentions that he is profoundly disturbed by the concept of the square root of −1—which is the basis for imaginary numbers (imagination being deprecated by the One State). Zamyatin’s point, probably in light of the increasingly dogmatic Soviet government of the time, would seem to be that it is impossible to remove all the rebels against a system. Zamyatin even says this through I-330: “There is no final revolution. Revolutions are infinite.”

Again, that was the only thing that didn’t work as a metaphor, mathwise, if you called it irrational. This is the problem with literary translators – how many of them are subject matter experts on what the authors they’re translating are experts in?

Zamyatin was an engineer, which really explains how he could effectively use the engineering-related metaphors and analogies. I really liked his discursion on energy versus entropy. That worked really well.

The introduction by the translator explained the bastardized copies that had come out in English over the years, and why. Some of it was to try to avoid Soviet repercussions on the author himself (it didn’t work). Some of it had to do with a prior translator. And some of it had to do with sheer laziness in prior publishers.

Anyway, here’s a bit from the introduction:

Fatigued and disheartened by the uninterrupted viciousness of the campaign against him, the ever-unconventional Zamyatin simply wrote to the Benefactor, Iosif Stalin, saying that he’d done nothing to deserve death, and that for a writer to be denied every avenue to publication was the same thing as death. He therefore asked permission to go live abroad. Stalin, perhaps astonished or amused by such candor, and also no doubt on the advice of Gorky, granted the wish. Zamyatin quit his homeland forever in 1931.

In his Paris exile, he lived mostly apart from the large Russian community and wrote very little. He was only occasionally noticed. One interview he granted to the French press amused him to the extent of provoking in reply a sort of parodic self-interview, which lay unpublished in a Columbia University archive until Zamyatin’s distinguished American biographer Alex Shane unearthed it and printed it (in Russian) in 1972. Zamyatin, informing an imaginary French public about the current state of Soviet letters, said that the problem uppermost was still that of the individual personality versus the collective. He had, he said, written a novel, We, that was the first to expose this problem.

But he was reminded of the Persian rooster. “Once in the Caucasus I heard a Persian fairy tale about a rooster who had the bad habit of crowing an hour earlier than the others. This caused the owner of the rooster so much inconvenience that he chopped off his rooster’s head. We turned out to be a Persian rooster. It was still too early to raise this problem, especially in such a form. So, after the novel was published (in various foreign translations) the Soviet critics hacked me about the head rather fiercely. But I must be solidly built, for my head, as you see, is still on my shoulders.”

Some dissidents did not fare so well.

This is the nutshell review I made for goodreads/amazon:

I can see the books/authors that influenced Zamyatin, and the ones he influenced in return. Lots of interesting ideas in here, but it really peters off at the end. In ranking of literary dystopias, it’s better than Brave New World, not as good as 1984, and on a level with Fahrenheit 451.

I actually liked the math/physics analogies, except for the one bit where square root of -1 (i.e., i) is called “irrational”. I hope that was just a mistranslation, because otherwise it worked well.

I will likely return to the book in written, not audio, form, checking out other translations. I’m thinking of learning Russian, and perhaps I’ll make my own translation.


I want to mention Hoopla digital, which is how I’ve been getting these audiobooks.

Through my account in the Westchester County Library system, I have access to 5 free “checkouts” on hoopla each month. I started by borrowing e-books, but given my very long commute, I’ve been using my 5 on audiobooks.

In May and June, I checked out all the Narnia audiobooks, and then I checked out We for my last checkout for June.

So far, I’ve gotten Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel, but I’m still browsing to decide my next after that.

If you have any books/audiobooks to recommend – let me know! Email or tweet at me: @meepbobeep.


I have been doing a lot… and actually, the pension-o-sphere has been a little quiet this past week.

But we shall see.


Here, check out our fun new toy, Turing Tumble.

Direct link to video.

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