In a city of glass, where people who are just Numbers living in glass-brick houses, and everyone’s daily routine is determined by the Tables of the Hours set down by the Well-Doer, one particular Number, D-503, is developing a dangerous affliction. He is nurturing a soul. This could put his life and that of his loved ones in mortal danger, because in this future One State, where logic rules, sex is rationed and love banned, a budding soul is an indication of developing individuality and separateness. But the state believes: “nobody is ‘one,’ but ‘one of’. We are so alike...”

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s chilling account of a future world state ruled by Reason is arguably one of the granddads of dystopia. Initially available as secret samizdat editions (1921) in the erstwhile Soviet Union, the book was smuggled out of USSR and first appeared in English in 1924 published by EP Dutton, New York. The novel was an immediate hit in western intellectual circles though its author, under attack from Soviet authorities, had to seek exile in France where he died in poverty. Here perhaps for the first time, fiction had engaged head on with the imagined workings of a totalitarian dictatorship in a manner never attempted before.

The origins

But did dystopian fiction really hit the road with Zamyatin’s We? Leaving aside the academic argument that any fictional work about a utopia has the elements of a dystopia embedded in it and that such writing about a utopia takes us back all the way to Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia, let us look at this snippet from a short story written in 1891 by the well-known humorist author Jerome Klapka Jerome. A man has woken up from 1000-year-long sleep, and finds himself in London where he needs a bath:

“No; we are not allowed to wash ourselves. You must wait until half-past four, and then you will be washed for tea.” “Be washed!” I cried. “Who by?”

“The State.” He said that they had found they could not maintain their equality when people were allowed to wash themselves. Some people washed three or four times a day, while others never touched soap and water from one year’s end to the other, and in consequence there got to be two distinct classes, the Clean and the Dirty.

This story about London, 1,000 years after a socialist revolution, is a snapshot introduction to dystopia, where the best laid plans for a state of equality have resulted in completely undesirable consequences. Jerome’s story seems to have influenced and inspired the anti-utopian fiction that followed.

Freedom versus happiness

A running theme and essentially what lies at the heart of all dystopian writing is the conflict of freedom and happiness. In Zamyatin’s book, the government of the One State (United State in Zilboorg’s translation) has curtailed all freedoms. A poet talking about paradise tells the character D-503 how Adam and Eve were offered a choice between happiness without freedom, and freedom without happiness, and how they stupidly chose the latter. The government of the One State claims to have restored this lost happiness to its subjects.

It’s a pity that this mighty little book is hardly ever discussed in this country. Our introduction to dystopian fiction has been through the works of two British authors – Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Some would of course mention here Jack London’s The Iron Heel, popular in the last century and of which a Bengali translation also exists. But for most others, it is the prophetic vision of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four which between them, introduced us to the dystopian tradition – a kind of writing, increasingly popular in our present times, when we always seem to be a step away from the scary possibilities of an anti-utopia.

Huxley’s novel, published in 1932, which ended up in some of the top reading lists of our times, presents us with a nightmarish vision of a distant future where genetic modification, hypnopaedia and Pavlovian conditioning have created a caste-system based on intelligence and aptitude. The uncanny clairvoyance of this work and its literary brilliance have ensured its place in the pantheon of dystopia before which all practitioners of this form pay obeisance or offer a hat tip.

Numerous works come to mind and it could be a literary detective’s favourite pastime to spot traces of Brave New World in the works of Margaret Atwood, to hear its echo in a scene from David Mitchell or perhaps to remember, while reading Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann, how those bands of men in post ice age Ifrik (Africa) who all looked the same, resemble Huxley’s Bokanovsky groups of individuals created from single embryos.

True to the dystopian school, the question of freedom versus happiness is also central to Huxley’s plot. There we find a primitive world of freedom and instincts existing within the ordered dystopia of the World State, in an electric-fenced New Mexican reservation from which we get John or The Savage, one of the principal characters of the book. Again, in one of many poignant scenes of this novel, the sleep-learning specialist, Bernard Marx and the foetus technician, Lenina Crowne, hover over the dark frothing waves of the English channel in their helicopter, and Lenina says:

“I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.”

He laughed.

“Yes, ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays.’ We begin giving the children that at five. But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way.”

The DNA of dystopia

Quite obviously the similarities between We and Brave New World are not hard to find and in fact, while reviewing Zamyatin’s book, George Orwell went so far as to say Huxley’s novel might have been partly derived from We, which Huxley later denied.

In fact this equally applies to Nineteen Eighty-Four, which seems to have drawn quite a bit of inspiration from the Russian novelist. Charrington’s antique shop and the “shabby little room” upstairs which has preserved an old world charm seems to echo the Antique House in Zamyatin’s We, just as the character O’Brien, who pretends to be a member of the secret Brotherhood working against Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four reminds us of the character S-4711, one of the Guardians in We. But the DNA of dystopian fiction has many common sources and certain foundational themes, so it is nothing out of the ordinary to discover traits of one work in the storyline or characters of another.

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, a book stamped for ever in the psyche of all freedom-loving individuals, was set in the dehumanised totalitarian state of Oceania ruled by Big Brother. Here the protagonist Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for propaganda. Similarly the Ministry of Peace is responsible for War while the Ministry of Love conducts torture and maintains law and order.

Surveillance, the cruelty of the state and the Party’s quest for absolute power are the running themes of Orwell’s novel, which brings it closer to Zamyatin’s We, while the dystopia of Brave New World, milder on the surface but with an ending equally dehumanising, is managed through genetic engineering, mental conditioning, fostering of consumerism and the use of the magic drug soma.

Like the other two books, Nineteen Eighty-four also delves into the freedom-versus-happiness question. As the protagonist Winston Smith is incarcerated and tortured in the chambers of the Ministry of Love by the large and burly O’Brien, who is an Inner Party member, many thoughts pass through his mind:

He knew in advance what O’Brien would say. That the Party did not seek power for its own ends, but only for the good of the majority. That it sought power because men in the mass were frail cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth, and must be ruled over and systematically deceived by others who were stronger than themselves. That the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better.

Greater good and happiness have almost always been the guiding principle for utopias which have often morphed into dystopias depending on what we are looking for. In her essay about Brave New World, Margaret Atwood lucidly illustrates this point when she writes:

Brave New World is either a perfect-world utopia or its nasty opposite, a dystopia, depending on your point of view: its inhabitants are beautiful, secure and free from diseases and worries, though in a way we like to think we would find unacceptable.

In our present times when the assaults on freedom by despots, increased surveillance from the humble CCTVs to the Five Eyes Alliance, climate change and its looming dangers, new gene technologies and the frankenfood threat and above all runaway consumerism have pushed us closer to dystopian scenarios, we find Huxley and Orwell drawing hordes of readers. Let us take a little time to look back at these three foundational works of a robust literary tradition.

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

A few weeks ago a certain method of ante-natal care with its roots in ayurveda, championed by the Garbh Vigyan Sanskar project of Arogya Bharati, was in the news for promising “the best babies in the world”. This drew the criticism it deserves. Critics cited ethical issues and lack of scientific knowledge – but the fact remains that genetic engineering has reached a stage where we are only a few decades away from creating so-called “designer babies” using methods like Easy PGD (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis). Brave New World naturally comes to mind as does Margaret Atwood’s works.

It is the year 632 AF (After Ford), Henry Ford having acquired a god-like stature, we are in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre where humans are produced in bottles, and, using various techniques right from the embryonic stage, are predesigned to be intelligent, stupid, morons, hard workers and so on.

The opening chapter sets the tone with powerful descriptions that blend scientific language with evocative use of words. The Director of the London Hatchery, Thomas, is showing some students the facilities for storing bottled embryos which are subjected to various shocks, chemical stimulations and processes that will slot them into lives of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas or Epsilons – the lowest in the caste rank:

“And in effect the sultry darkness into which the students now followed him was visible and crimson, like the darkness of closed eyes on a summer’s afternoon. The bulging flanks of row on receding row and tier above tier of bottles glinted with innumerable rubies, and among the rubies moved the dim red spectres of men and women with purple eyes and all the symptoms of lupus. The hum and rattle of machinery faintly stirred the air.”

The story is plotted at one level around the conflicts between the Alpha-plus sleep-learning specialist Bernard Marx and Thomas, the Director. Everyone feels that there is something wrong with Bernard’s conditioning because he is not reconciled to his destiny of a super-intelligent Alpha like the others. He doesn’t enjoy wasteful games like Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy, is averse to promiscuous sex which is the norm, and is not happy with his condition, unlike other citizens of the World State. The Director has warned him a few times, threatening to send him off on exile to Iceland but things haven’t changed.

At this juncture Bernard and the foetus technician Lenina go on a holiday to the New Mexican reservation of Malpais where, they come across the ageing Linda and her son, the yellow haired John (the Savage), among the villagers. It turns out that John the Savage is the Director Thomas’ naturally born child. Thomas had abandoned Linda after he lost her in a storm while on a visit to the reservation.

The hard contours of a dystopian society do not yield easily to the literary approach but Brave New World is a master class in how it should be done. With its carefully etched characters, the scintillating wit, a brilliant mix of irony and laughter, and the well-oiled engine of a plot centred on the tensions between Thomas, Bernard and Lenina, this book easily surpasses the other two in literary qualities if not also in the diamond-edge of its satire.

Bernard sees an opportunity to teach the Director a lesson. He brings John and Linda back to London with him where, in a hilarious scene, the Savage, runs and falls on his knees before the Director and a roomful of Hatchery workers:

“...‘John!’ she called. ‘John!’

He came in at once, paused for a moment just inside the door, looked round, then soft on his moccasined feet strode quickly across the room, fell on his knees in front of the Director, and said in a clear voice: ‘My father!’

The word (for ‘father’ was not so much obscene as – with its connotation of something at one remove from the loathsomeness and moral obliquity of child-bearing – merely gross, a scatological rather than a pornographic impropriety); the comically smutty word relieved what had become a quite intolerable tension. Laughter broke out, enormous, almost hysterical, peal after peal, as though it would never stop. My father – and it was the Director! My father! Oh Ford, oh Ford!”

John “The Savage”, who has read only one book in his life – The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – becomes somewhat of a celebrity; an oddity in fact for his language is peppered with the quotes from the Bard, in London’s elite circles. But he finds the life of this “brave new world”, quoting from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, hard to digest, falls in love with Lenina, openly incites rebellion by throwing away soma rations, and finally meets a sad end.

In his Foreword to a new edition of the book written in 1946, Huxley wrote that if he would write the book again he would give the Savage a third option between the primitive Indian reservation of New Mexico and the utopian London. This would be in a place of decentralised economics, human-centric science, cooperation and the pursuit of man’s Final End. Such a society he did attempt to portray in his last book, Island, which never climbed the heights of Brave New World.

Nineteen eighty-four, George Orwell

Orwell’s novel, unlike Huxley’s, foregrounds the harshness of totalitarian rule and the political philosophy that begets such a monster. While the Huxleian dystopia is a sort of soma-infused, predestination-soaked, pseudo-paradise, in Orwell’s Oceania and Airstrip One (England) deadly torture and surveillance by the Thought Police (which is always on the lookout for thoughtcrime) helps to maintain public order.

There is continuous war among the three world powers, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, and rocket bombs fall now and then on London. Big Brother, whose picture is everywhere, rules Oceania with an iron hand where, at the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith works at revising historical facts.

The ruling political ideology is Ingsoc (English Socialism) and power belongs to Inner Party members (with Big Brother at the top) followed by Outer Party and finally the hapless proles who don’t count for much.

Winston begins to keep a diary in his room, away from the gaze of the two way telescreen, where he records “the internal restless monologue running through his head”, his observations and innermost thoughts. He knows that if this is discovered he will be put to death. Yet he writes on the beautiful creamy paper, “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER”.

The story develops slowly and the beginning drags a bit where the way of life in Airstrip One lived through the characters, the iron hand of the Party, the worship of Hate and the workings of the various ministries are drilled into the reader’s mind in a mechanical fashion. Perhaps this treatment suits the subject and is meant to echo the heartlessness of the ruling powers and the emptiness of lives, giving the reader a sense of all that is lost in this Orwellian anti-utopia.

Winston falls in love with Julia who works in the Fiction Department, churning out novels and finds a refuge for both of them in a little room above Mr Charrington’s antiques shop. In this little shop and the room above it, the old world of beautiful objects seems to be preserved in a time capsule.

“It was a heavy lump of glass, curved on one side, flat on the other, making almost a hemisphere. There was a peculiar softness, as of rainwater, in both the colour and the texture of the glass. At the heart of it, magnified by the curved surface, there was a strange, pink, convoluted object that recalled a rose or a sea anemone.

‘What is it?’ said Winston, fascinated.

‘That’s coral, that is,’ said the old man. ‘It must have come from the Indian Ocean. They used to kind of embed it in the glass. That wasn’t made less than a hundred years ago. More, by the look of it.’

‘It’s a beautiful thing,’ said Winston.

‘It is a beautiful thing,’ said the other appreciatively. ‘But there’s not many that’d say so nowadays.’”

But soon Winston and Julia are snared by O’Brien, an Inner Party member who pretends to belong to the secret Brotherhood conspiring the downfall of the Party. O’Brien arranges to send him a forbidden book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by Emmanuel Goldstein, which he reads in the apparent safety of the room above Charrington’s shop. But soon enough they are arrested.

Torture follows, Winston confesses to real and imaginary crimes and the final defeat comes next when he and Julia betray each other. With this defeat of love it seems there is nothing left to defend anymore. And surely enough, we find a changed Winston in the final pages.

The enduring quality of Orwell’s novel flows from the lengths he goes to in describing the propaganda machinery, the degree of surveillance, the means of torture, and the dehumanising effects of totalitarianism which includes among other things, children spying on and reporting against their parents and the development of a precise official language called Newspeak, much of which, in various degrees, are to be found in the world today. And once again, all these powers lording over these dystopias concur on one singular aspect – they are enemies of freedom. “Freedom is Slavery” is one of the party slogans of Big Brother’s Oceania.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin

Zamyatin’s We, like Nineteen Eighty-Four begins with a somewhat flat narration and almost one-dimensional characters which we soon realise is a way to portray how human beings have been reduced to cogs in a wheel and. in this case, just “numbers”. But here we do have a slightly curious plot to draw our attention.

The narrator, D-503, is the builder of the spaceship Integral, which will carry the message of “happiness” from the One State to other worlds with the hope of subjugating their inhabitants to the rule of Reason. The book is a collection of “records” kept by the narrator and is marked by mannerisms and a curious mathematical vocabulary which is an echo of the rule of logic and mathematics that guides the life of the “numbers” inhabiting the earth and which also establishes the fact that D-503 is a mathematician. This is from a report in the State newspaper and as we have seen in the other works it begins with an attack on freedom and an emphasis on the desirability of happiness:

“One thousand years ago, your heroic ancestors subjected the whole earth to the power of the One State. A still more glorious task is before you: the integration of the indefinite equation of the Cosmos by the use of glass, electric, fire-breathing Integral. Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically-faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy. But before we take up arms, we shall try the power of words.”

In this future state, Guardians, who are the secret police, keep tabs on everyone and crime is punished with torture and execution by The Machine. Sex is rationed with a system of pink slips and, as the story progresses, a female number, O-90 with lovely blue eyes is assigned to D-503. People are allowed to lower the curtains of their transparent apartments only for these assigned hours of physical intimacy.

But soon enough our narrator meets another woman, I-330, “whip-like” with “dazzling white teeth”, and gets strongly attracted to her. They have a tryst in his flat where, breaking the rules, they smoke and imbibe a greenish alcoholic drink, probably absinthe.

I-330 invites him to the Ancient House which is at the edge of the Green Wall that surrounds the city of glass. Meanwhile the whip-like woman, who is a secret revolutionary belonging to the MEPHI, impresses upon him to take command of the trial launch of the Integral and land it outside the Green Wall. The plan succeeds but the Guardians have infiltrated their ranks and so they have to return.

The Wall, border, fence, etcetera constitute a standard trope of dystopia, separating the realm of civilisation and happiness from the areas inhabited by primitives, where reason still doesn’t have a foothold. Where, often, independence, driven out from dystopia, has found a somewhat comfortable refuge.

Family is another structure that those in power in these anti-utopias hate because it represents what Bertrand Russell in The Scientific Outlook – a book which some say might have had an influence on Huxley – describes as “a loyalty which competes with loyalty to the State”. Sure enough, family bonds are tenuous in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where it has become an “extension of the Thought Police” while in Brave New World and We, the family unit no longer exists.

The rule of logic and mathematics in every sphere of life in Zamyatin’s novel is echoed in D-503’s descriptions – “I noticed her brows that rose to the temples in an acute angle – like the sharp corners of an X”, while the growing irrationality within himself is thus recorded, “Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one.” The square root of minus one as all students of high school maths know is the imaginary number “i” which in this context would stand for individuality and separateness to be contrasted with the faceless collective “We” of Zamyatin’s world.

On the Great day of Unanimity each year, when a farcical election is held to return power to the Well-Doer (Benefactor in future translations), it is suddenly found that many have risen in dissent, refusing to vote for the leader. The MEPHI has spread its roots and a ruthless counter-offensive begins. Large sections of the population, including D-503, are subject to The Operation to remove the “centre of fancy” from their brains which will turn them into “human tractors”. In the end, the narrator’s fate is somewhat similar to Winston’s in Nineteen Eighty-Four, while I-330 and others are tortured and sentenced to death.

Zamyatin’s We is a book that grows upon you as you read it for the first, second or third time. With its mathematical similes, the cold antiseptic settings through which faceless “numbers”, robbed of imagination and independence, go about fulfilling their duties to the state, always under the shadow of the Well-Doer and his murderous Machine, the book reminds us about all that is precious in our lives, all that is worth fighting for till the last of our breath.

Who was right and where do we stand today?

There have been many debates as to who was right about the future – Orwell or Huxley? It has been pointed out that with the fall of the Soviet Union the Orwellian world of a totalitarian dictatorship collapsed for ever. But still in corners of the world like North Korea, we find situations that seem to be taken straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, just as in Trump-era United States, we find echoes of censorship and control over facts imagined by Orwell.

However, in predicting the course science might take, and in imagining the possibility that humanity would squander away freedom at the altar of desire and consumerism, Huxley’s Brave New World stands out as a book more conscious of the pulse of rulers and ruled alike.

In his 1958 book Brave New World Revisited which among other things predicts how thw population explosion will become a strain on the world’s resources, Huxley, comparing his dystopia to Orwell’s, wrote:

“The society described in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a society controlled almost exclusively by punishment and the fear of pun­ishment. In the imaginary world of my own fable, pun­ishment is infrequent and generally mild. The nearly perfect control exercised by the government is achieved by systematic reinforcement of desirable be­haviour, by many kinds of nearly non-violent manipula­tion, both physical and psychological, and by genetic standardisation.”

Huxley’s insights that non-violent manipulation works far better than terror and that the trivial pleasures of a consumer culture will steal freedom from us are an apt characterisation of our times. Neil Postman beautifully summarises the work of these two authors, when he writes:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”

Reading these three books and reflecting on the above words, it wouldn’t be a thoughtcrime to believe that we are already swimming breathlessly in the choppy waters of a dystopian present.

Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Trust, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow. He has advocated on climate change issues at the United Nations and has recently finished writing his fourth work of fiction about environmental disaster.