“Those two, in paradise were given a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. There was no alternative.” – We
I’m really enjoying retro-science fiction at the moment.
The ideas imagined in science fiction of years past planted seeds in more practical minds who went on to shape the future that we live in today. That cycle of imagination – Writers: “is this possible?” – to creation – Scientists: “we will find out!” – continues today.
We, written by a former bolshevik, Yevgeny Zamyatin, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution as he watched his party’s ideals mutate into just another form of the very totalitarianism they had worked so hard to overthrow, is more than just an influential sci-fi book. Though We Zamyatin displayed uncanny foresight into what would become the USSR in the real world.
The book is a warning, a plea for individual thought over mindless groupthink; a manifesto that untimely reveals messy freedom and imperfect humanity is better than perfectly planned civilisation without a soul or imagination.
Through his words in We you can see a man struggling with his own ideology and shedding his own idealism in the face of the frail, corruptibility of human nature. Also through his writing, it becomes clear that he came to the conclusion that it is preferable to be a fallible, irrational human than to be an infallible, perfectly rational, yet ultimately soulless machine.
In other words, he indicates that for him at least, freedom and imperfect happiness is better than perfect happiness without freedom after all.
“You are perfect. You are machine like.” – We
We also offers wisdom for us, in today’s age, where amidst the rise of artificial intelligence, we are outsourcing more and more of our humanity and empathy (in the form of outsourcing decision making to consensus algorithms though Alexa and Google Home, and outsourcing the care of our young and old to robots and chatbots) to machines, at the same time that we are trying to programme our machines with empathy and consciousness. We need to carefully consider if this is really the sterile, perfect world we want to live in.
The ideas planted in We grew on, and were reflected half a century later, in Brave New World, 1984, and many of the other iconic dystopian science fiction novels that made an impact on the science and social structures that we see around us right now in the real world. For this, we owe Yevgeny Zamyatin a great deal.
“There is no final revolution. Revolutions are infinite… I do not want anyone to want for me – I want to want for myself.” – We