Sunday, March 27, 2016


Just finished this one last night.  Yevgeny Zamyatin's sci-fi masterpiece (ISBN 978-0380633135) is an interesting combination of CRUDE and SUBTLE, exploring the interplay of Chaos and Order through the eyes of what, in the Fifties, was called a Company Man.  These days you might call him A Cog in the Machine or just a Tool.  Students of the subject of Chaos, those trying to make friends with Chaos, or those just starting to get fed up with the Order in their lives should definitely seek this one out.  This 1921 novel is, to use the protagonist's favorite word, CLEARLY the ancestor of any number of titles you may be more familiar with, like This Perfect Day (Ira Levin, ISBN 978-1122714129), 1984 (George Orwell, ISBN 978-0451524935), The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, ISBN 978-1590172926), The World Inside (Robert Silverberg, ISBN 978-0765324320), or the ever-popular Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick, ISBN 978-0345404473).  Closer than any of these, in many ways, is George Lucas's student film, THX-1138.  Another film with the same basic aim is good old Logan's Run.  In every one of these stories, a single person realizes that  even though he is required to be, he cannot be exactly like everyone else, and has to break free in order to be true to who he is.  Once the protagonist starts to branch out from what he has always known, he has no choice; he MUST choose authentic selfhood, come what may. 

There are so many of these stories, and there are so many different people writing and filming them, that I wonder why so few of the sci-fi artists doing it end their stories the way We ends.  I honestly can't think of a single one.  (That doesn't mean there aren't any.   I may just be reading all the wrong books.  But I digress.)  What makes We so powerful is the fact that Zamyatin's protagonist, D-503, can never get off the fence -- maybe I should say he can never get off the Green Wall -- that separates his familiar world of pure Order from what he sees as the pure Chaos of the rest of the planet. 

Let's examine this world of pure Order.  How does one impose such a tidy thing on an untidy species like Homo sap?  Where in THX-1138 everyone is controlled with psychoactive drugs -- where the good people of the monads are kept distracted from their other needs in The World Inside with sex, sex and more sex -- the Benefactor, who runs the walled city in We, relies on scientific principles, never fully described, but based entirely on concepts of mathematical purity.  (Is there anything, anywhere, more Orderly than math? And now you know why I hate it...)  In this world, everyone does everything at the same time, the same way, according to a schedule that is tacked to the wall of everyone's living quarters.  The Table, as they call it, was worked out by some mathematical prophet named Taylor.  The protagonist is a mathematician and rocket scientist, building a ship that will take his civilization's perfection to other planets -- whether the other planets like it or not.  He adheres to Taylor's principles of mathematic purity the way Baptists adhere to their literal interpretations of the Bible.  Unlike the Bible, though, math is not open to interpretation.  There is no privacy in this world, and no need for privacy; no choices to be made, and no need to make a choice; all walls and floors are glass, which gives a whole new level of meaning to President Obama's favorite word, "transparency." There are no plants or animals, and a number's (meaning a man's or woman's) feet never touch the ground; everyone lives under a glass dome and eats only -- I crap you negative -- a scientifically-designed petroleum product.  Yum!  All this guy talks about, in fact, is the glory of his civilization's perfection, and neatness, and clarity, and, well, its Order.   I was especially thrown by the Day of Unanimity, a citywide celebration in which everyone is issued new uniforms, takes a day off work and goes to vote -- and the whole point of the day is to vote together, for the only candidate, in perfect unison, while singing the anthem of the One State. 

D-503 explains that in a world with no freedom at all, there is no criminal behavior, nothing to hide...That is, until he meets a woman, I-330, who introduces him to the ways of their ancient forbears, who drank, smoked, dressed up in alluring costumes, skipped work, and...went outside to go for walks in the woods!

(And does it surprise you that the author was an ex-Bolshevik?  I really wonder what the Benefactor would have done with someone like me, who suffers from dyscalculia and sees any sort of interaction between numbers as the very essence of Chaos.  I daresay I would have been taken out and shot by the authorities before age 10.)

D-503 is not the typical rebel you see in stories of this type; he does not embrace his new, secret life and reject everything he's ever known.  He suspects that he is losing his mind and keeps going to the doctor about it.  One of them diagnoses him, gravely, as having a soul -- a rare and terrible condition.  D-503 is horrified.  And here's the thing -- Zamyatin is being very realistic here.  People want Order.  They love it; they need it.   I mean, seriously, this is too much of a good thing, but there are good reasons to love Order.  There are millions of people around the world who would like nothing better than to have every decision made for them.  There are plenty of people who never made a good decision in their lives and the rest of us would have it a lot easier if their free will were somehow removed. 

Ah, but being what we are, we also need Chaos.  Some, like I-330, need more of it than others.  Some, like D-503, love it madly but are also terrified of it.  That is exactly what this book is about.  Most of the authors and filmmakers doing homage to this story miss the essential ambiguity in D-503's predicament.  I have only read this book once, but I suspect that the ambiguity may deepen with every successive reading.  I definitely plan to find out...

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Desert Blooms!


You may not recognize this beauty spot -- it's Death Valley in California, where it gets to be over 120 degrees Fahrenheit on an average day (that's 49 degrees Celsius).  You take your life in your hands even setting foot on this real estate.  So why is it covered with pretty yellow flowers?  This guy did it:

'Kay, I'm just joshing.  But what everyone keeps calling the "Godzilla El NiƱo" is the real reason.  So, close enough, right?   The state of California -- invariably described as "drought-stricken" in the news -- has gotten so much rain in recent weeks that the desert bloomed, quite literally.  They still call it a "drought-stricken" state, so how much torrential rain they are asking for before they'll call of the drought remains an open question.  NOW MIGHT BE THE TIME TO QUIT GRIPING ABOUT THE FRIKKIN' DROUGHT, PEOPLE.  The rest of the state really is starting to look as if Godzilla had showed up for lunch, and NOT because of drought conditions -- houses are perched precariously on cliff's edges that used to be hillsides, cars are washing away with screaming people inside, and some really big trees and walls and la de da are getting knocked over by hailstorms, winds of over 100 mph, and floods.  Those are the areas that aren't covered by 5 feet of snow. 

What a difference a couple of degrees makes!  What I like is that everyone is describing this scenario with the word CHAOS.  The funny part is that all this fuss is simply a function of Nature trying to res-establish balance -- restore ORDER.  So what do we have here?  Chaos or order?