Everyday Semiotics

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Commie Nazis

One of the many wonderful things about a certain someone I’m romantically involved with is that she’s presently taking a science fiction course. As best I can, I’ve been reading along with her.

The syllabus includes two by Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Lathe of Heaven” and “The Dispossessed,” a trilogy by Octavia Butler, Wells’s “The Time Machine,” and the film “Galaxy Quest,” among others.

I usually like to devote these posts to a single topic within a single book. Given my proclivity for rambling on, that’s a useful constraint. But I was rather taken by the similarities between “The Dispossessed” (U.S., 1974) and a book I’d never heard of until the semester’s start, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (Russia, 1921). So, in the tradition of middle school, I think I’ll do a bit of the ol’ compare-and-contrast. I promise to stray beyond the five-paragraph format, however.

Both novels are fascinated with walls, and both involve rocket ships escaping (or is it expanding?) those walls.

The One State of “We” is contained within the Green Wall. Beyond is yucky nature. Everyone stays inside and lives in a panoptic society where everything is made of glass. (Ciphers are well advised not to throw stones.) Yet the story is told by the chief designer of a rocket intended to spread the wisdom of the One State into the cosmos. Yucky nature is held back, but eternity is penetrated.

The Port of Abbeny in “The Dispossessed” is surrounded by a wall, one that keeps the inside in or the outside out, depending on how you look at it. Offworlders are not permitted beyond the wall. Anarresti (onworlders) are permitted within the wall, but not off the planet.

Naturally, both of these membranes are permeable and permeated. That is the action and tension of both books. There is permitted travel outside the walls and there is prohibited travel outside the walls. The heroes of both books travel in both modes.

Zemyatin, without authorial comment or internal explanation, has characters without names but alphanumeric designations. The alienness of this system, and the lack of guiding commentary, makes this very unpalatable to the reader. It is easy to recognize the citizens (“ciphers,” zeroes) of the One State are drones without individuality. In fact it’s somewhat difficult to distinguish O-90 and I-330 despite their distinct characterizations.

LeGuin’s novel has a very similar naming system. The people of Anarres get names generated by computers, five or six letters long, usually following a consonant-vowel- consonant-vowel-consonant pattern. Yet it is made entirely palatable, even appealing, thanks to her protagonist’s description of the system: “But what is more personal than a name no other living person bears?” he tells someone who reacts to it as “so mechanical, so impersonal” (198).

I take this digression to underscore the dramatic recasting of the collective societies presented in the two novels. Zemyatin, writing at the time and place he did was naturally mortified by fascism. LeGuin, writing at the time and place she did was drawn to anarchism. Ideologically opposite, the societies of each book takes a remarkably similar shape. (LeGuin’s I think is a much more nuanced depiction, and benefits from a juxtaposition with a capitalist society on the planet Urras, but I digress again.)

Why Shevek wants to travel to Urras is plain and it is complicated: it is patriotic and altruistic and selfish and whimsical. The reason the One State wishes to proselytize across the solar system is murky, and seems uncomplex. I want to relate this somehow to the naming of individuals within each society, the complexity suggested by the impersonal computer generated-ness of both systems and the simultaneous uniqueness both entails. I’m not there yet.

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