Asimov/Astounding: Guided exploration and blogging prompt

For Tuesday, October 4, everyone is to read at least the first three parts of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and to spend a little time with a sample issue of the magazine in which it first appeared, Astounding Science-Fiction.

The issues containing Foundation are not available on the Pulp Magazines Project, but the archive does hold a digital version of an early issue of ASF edited by John W. Campbell, whose influence was decisive in forming the writing of the so-called “Golden Age” of Science Fiction, including that of Asimov.

Read the short history of Astounding by Nathan Vernon Madison on the Pulp Magazines Project website. Then download the PDF file of the August 1938 issue. As we did with Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories, browse this issue, paying particular attention to (and taking notes on) its characteristics as a medium, and comparing it to the other media we have looked at, including the earlier pulps.

You are not required to read any of the stories in the issue. You are required to read the following texts:

  1. Campbell’s editorial, “Power” (111)
  2. “In Times to Come” (124)
  3. The first page only of Willy Ley, “Orbits, Take-offs and Landings” (125); page through the rest
  4. The whole of “Science discussions and Brass Tacks” (154–61), taking careful note of the authors of the letters from readers.

Blogging prompt (group 1)

Foundation envisions a long future history. What is history, according to this novel? Choose a passage (or at most two) that suggests some particular understanding of history: who the protagonists of history are, which events are significant (or which aren’t), what forces or decisions shape the historical process. Or you can think about how the narrative form and technique of Asimov’s text implies attitudes to history (how it should be told, what its purpose is). Either way, quote a passage and build your blog post from there.

Write a good paragraph, but mini-essays are right out. Group 2 members may optionally blog about this if they wish.

Please do not forget to read all the blog entries on Monday evening.

The Time Traveller’s Privilege

Both Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom” and Wells’s The Time Machine solidify their relationship to the science fiction genre by testing the theoretical limits of established scientific ideas. In Wells, the reader is guided through a thorough speculation on the logistics of time travel when the Time Traveller posits the idea of moving through the fourth dimension–a proposition that merely requires the expansion of already existing scientific facts (Wells 4). The result is an oscillation between established reality and plausible alternatives to reality, rather than an escape through fantasy. Similarly, Wertenbaker pays close attention to already established astrological knowledge in order to speculate on the unknown structures of the universe, allowing him to posit theories of the nebulae and multiple universes (“The Man from the Atom” 66). Moreover, both of these features require characters who not only posit theories but also test them out and refute them. This occurs multiple times for the Time Traveller, such as when he works through the “altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks–a something inhuman and malign” (Wells 48). However, while both stories allow for the ability to call these theories into question, it is in this ability to refute them that distinguishes the two different situations of address. When the Time Traveller finds himself reevaluating his earlier theories, it is in the context of someone who is superior to the times upon which he is speculating. Even though the environment is alien to him, he is already equipped with the languages and frameworks of the past with which to evaluate the future, such as “aristocracy,” and the more menacing the Morlocks appear the less “human” they become. Additionally, the framing structure requires that our conveyor of these ideas will return unscathed in order to tell the tale, reasserting the privilege of the Time Traveller’s present. The narrator in “The Man from the Atom” earns no such privilege; his only ability to test Professor Martyn’s theories (as well as his own) happens through his physical displacement and his becoming lost in space and time. By testing out these scientific theories, the Man from the Atom must become vulnerable and completely helpless–with no source of empathy or assertions of humanity or civilization to cling to.

Scifi Genre Signals: Single Men with a Death Wish

Both H.G Well’s The Time Machine and The Man from the Atom by G. Peyton Wertenbaker utilize a specific genre signal—a single man who goes on a faraway dangerous adventure for the sake of science–which I think is very interesting.  Both the Time Traveler and Kirby are undoubedly single men, as there has never been any mention of the Time Traveler having an attachment to anyone in his house or otherwise and Kirby specifically mentions always being “ready for these experiments” (Wertenbaker 64).  Likewise, both of these men are going on really dangerous journeys—the Time Traveler is going to the far future and he has no clue what he is getting himself into.  In fact, the Time Traveler does not even know if the Earth would exist at that point and as the story progresses we see that it was indeed a dangerous journey that he was not prepared for.  Kirby as well jumped on board with the professor’s experiment without much thought—even though the professor explicitly warned him by saying, “’You must realize, of course, that there are a multitude of unknown dangers. I know nothing of the complete effects of the machine.  But my experiments on inanimate objects have seemed satisfactory’” (Wertenbaker 63).  Any sane person would at least hesitate when the professor who built the machine says he does not know all there is to know about said machine yet.  Obviously these men have motivations that guide their actions, most likely for the sake of science, but I see this as a signal of the Science Fiction genre.

Utopian Sameness

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Leslie F. Stone’s The Conquest of Gola are both set within—arguable—utopias and end with the quelling of rebellions that threaten to disrupt the status quo. In We, there is so much sameness that permeates what appears to be a relatively large population that not only are the members of this population numbered, but even our narrator does not take the time to focus upon the characteristics that make his cohorts different from him until later on in the book- and, by that point, the differences he sees are driving him near-insane and leading him towards rebellion against OneState. The Conquest of Gola presents a matriarchal race that immediately dismisses the entrance of another people due to the fact that they are “barbarians” with “poorly organized bod[ies]”; the narrator then says, upon meeting this new race, that these Dextalans must be “envious of [the Golans’] beautiful golden coats, [their] movable eyes, [their] power to scent, hear, and touch with any part of the body…” (1282). This reminded me of the first time that D-503 sees the people who live beyond the wall; he reacts with the same mix of pity and wonder, pondering how these people manage to thrive outside of the confines of OneState while simultaneously recognizing that there is some appeal to being this particular kind of “barbarian”. Further, the narrator in The Conquest of Gola also acknowledges that the Golans were “without a doubt…freaks to those freakish Dextalans”, again making quite clear that there are immovable differences between the two peoples while also making light of the almost automatic recognition of that racial disconnect. What I found particularly interesting was that although The Conquest of Gola is certainly more of a story about a female-dominated race successfully reigning superior, the editor included the following descriptor, found in the middle of the narrative columns:

“Americans are fond of ridiculing the customs, habits, and temperaments of people of other nations. Similarly other nations pick our peculiarities as a source of amusement. We all think that what we do, think or say is natural and inevitable, and that the actions of others are ‘queer’” (1280).

From this, as well as with both Zamyatin’s and Stone’s portrayals of their respective settings, a question arises: are utopias only possible when they are populated with homogeneity? And, consequently, are they only threatened when an “other” emerges to challenge their sameness?

The Man From the Atom : The Interstellar Savage

Once Kirby in The Man from the Atom becomes larger than life on a “strange planet of a strange star” he becomes aware of the relative meaningless of the human footprint on an ever-expanding universe (66). The Professor’s machine stretches his life expectancy by increasing his size, but all around him “men had come and died, races had flourished had fallen” (66). He enters into the unknown like the Time Traveller’s ability to live outside of time and space and bear witness to other societies. Kirby explains how “[i]n ten minutes of [his] life” even the professor has lived away a lifetime. One discovers a sci-fi hero encountering a new civilization as the outsider. Kirby explains, “I find myself a savage, a creature to be treated with pity and contempt in a world too advanced even for his comprehension. Nothing here means anything to me” (66). Not only does his gigantic size make him stick out like a sore thumb, but the relative sentiment of receiving a polarizing reception from foreign civilizations reminds one of the Eloi and Morlocks. Kirby immediately thinks the others will feel sorry for him or consider him a worthless creature. Although the Time Traveller’s appearance does not change, the stark differences between an alien race and a human one conjures complex themes about identity and acceptance between two seemingly different groups. The feeling of becoming the other, the savage, seems to be the hyperbolic reaction of Kirby. Interestinly enough, the Time Traveller recognizes his difference, he considers the Elois and Morlocks to be the savage other. Maybe because the Time Traveller’s reckless abandon desires his time travelling success, he feels superior and successful. However, Kirby’s freak accident feels like a cautionary tale about the limitless variables in an uncontrolled science experiment.

Presentation

What struck me first while I was reading the stories was the layout of the magazine. Each story has a mid to full page illustration, a review of the story, and sometimes even a drawing of the author. It was surprising to me to see a review of the story while reading the story and seeing the author or editor compare Alice in Wonderland to The Man from the Atom and how they’re similar and different and the author of The Conquest of Gola writing about the ridicule of culture. The layout is strange because instead of putting the picture of the author and the review of the story in the beginning of the story or even in the beginning of the magazine, it appears between the columns in the middle of the story. It was jarring to see these boxes of writing and drawing of authors because they took me away from the story and almost stopped me from immersing myself. I was very confused at first, but I think the reason the layout is like this is because it’s advertisement. It’s easy to imagine these pulp magazines at a newspaper stand and something a customer can only flip through a bit before being yelled at by the vendor. The illustrations are the biggest lure as the near-full page picture shows the world the story is based in,the review is on the next page or so to give the customer a deeper understanding, and the author’s picture to give them another impression on what type of person they are and stories they write.

Relative Size

A moment of comparison that I would like to focus on is between Wertenbaker’s “The Man From the Atom” and Wells’ The Time Machine — specifically how each of these works addresses the unknown through the use of relative terminology.  In Wertenbaker’s story, Kirby chooses to increase in size, rather than shrink, under the pretense of seeing the world in such a way that there would be no “unknowns” (Amazing Stories, April 1926, p. 62). Theoretically, his argument makes sense regarding the importance of understanding how the universe works; but I love how Wertenbaker inverts Kirby’s logic by showing how everything that is large is at the same time small: “A coincidence suddenly struck me. Was not this system of a great ball effect with a nucleus within similar to what the atom was said to be?… [was] a huge electron composed of universes? The idea was terrible in its magnitude, something too huge for comprehension” (Amazing Stories, April 1926, p. 65). By portraying the size of the universe through a comparison to the smallest atom, Wertenbaker is giving us a glimpse at infinity; but I find it fascinating how the experience is told through relatively domestic size comparisons — be it inches, feet, centimeters. I feel that this packaging of the information in relative terms presents the story in an accessible way, since we are not distracted by any incongruences in the description. Wells’ Time Traveller portrays his tale using similar comparisons — one moment in particular is the very end where he is describing the crab as large as a table. At this concluding moment, even the smallest of creatures has become large, and we can begin to understand how science fiction works to defamiliarize the ordinary without totally rejecting the hold that reality has on our reasoning.

A Taste of Adventure in the Face of Demise

H. G. Well’s Time Machine, and Wertenbaker’s The Man from the Atom, have two main characters that seem to have a severe disregard for their own personal safety. Kirby in The Man front the Atom, puts his personal safety in the hands of a controversial scientist who is not accepted by the rest of contemporaries and allows himself to be the Guinea pig in his outlandish experiments. The Time Traveller does something similar in his story except he is putting himself in danger instead of endangering the lives of others. The reckless danger that scientist and adventure characters put themselves into during their stories seems to be a commentary on the recklessness that some endeavors into exploration and science seem to ignore. The lack of care and arrogance that these characters show toward the forces of nature that they are trying to manipulate usually ends up badly for them. The Time Traveler realizes that humanity is just a hiccup in the fate of humanity and all the cultural and intellectual progress that humans are striving for will end up in mindless crab people on a dead planet. Kirby ends up getting ripped away from his world because he allows himself to be manipulated by the Professor’s experiment.  It goes along with the cautionary tale vein that is carried within many science fiction stories especially within dystopian literature. This same theme reminds me of Frankenstein. The authors might not be saying science shouldn’t be explored but that people should not play God, and that there needs to be a respect for nature.

Questioning Utopias

If one were to define feminism as equality of the sexes, it appears that Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and Leslie F. Stone may have a different idea. “The Conquest of Gola” and “Sultana’s Dream” both use the idea of a feminist utopia and yet they downplay the male role in their communities. Both “Sultana’s Dream” and “The Conquest of Gola” present men as useless. This is especially evident with Stone who describes the Detaxalans as “Nothing of particular interest, a very low grade of intelligence, to be sure. There was no need of looking below the surface” (1283). This can either be taken as a possible critique as to how men view women and how it needs to change, or that when either sex dominates over another the community suffers for it. Stone’s approach is a bit more overt, as she goes on and on about how the Detaxalans are an inferior race (that happen to be male). Whereas, Hossain invites the reader to question what if the roles were reversed? Would life be better?

Imagined Nostalgia

In reading the tales in “Amazing Stories” and “Wonder Stories,” I find myself pining for a past which I know only through the recollections of contemporary fiction writers. Although I read a good deal of fantasy, science-fiction, and all manner of ‘wonder stories’ as a child, I dealt almost entirely in full-length books rather than magazines. As I grew older, I began reading earlier, ‘classic’ works by Wells, Dick, Lovecraft, and Moorcock, but these stories came in the form of collected Barnes & Noble editions, or through online archives like pulpmags.org (a resource I’m excited to have for future reading). Why did I seek this earlier material? I believe modern fantasy and sci-fi writers have a tendency to celebrate the long legacy of the genre, frequently dedicating books to noted authors, making oblique references, and paralleling the style of early, ‘pulpy’ stories. So, in reading these stories, I have a strange feeling of familiarity – not for the stories themselves, but for the aesthetic which comes with them. The ads, for instance. The energetic language of opportunity, scientific discovery, and masculine mastery which can come with the purchase of a simple postage stamp is found all over these magazines. My favorite is the ad in the early pages of the Wonder Stories with “Conquest of Gola,” which proclaims excitedly: “LEARN ELECTRICITY without lessons in 90 days BY ACTUAL WORK Great Coyne.” The bold, comic-book-esque emphasis on words and strange, old-fashioned phrasing of technological skill reminds me instantly of nostalgic pastiches by Alan Moore (“The Black Dossier”) and Neil Gaiman (chapter openers for “A Study in Scarlet”), to name a couple. As in the original magazines, this advertising aesthetic is matched by a focus on stories that really are wondrous, amazing, weird, and strange, stories which excite and make one goggle at the page in disbelief (as I found myself doing at various points in “Conquest of Gola” in particular). My point is that despite my lack of familiarity with the magazines of the 20s and 30s, the adoption of the pulp aesthetic by contemporary writers means that the tradition of exciting, optimistic language paired with tales of wonder and excitement which stretch the boundaries of the imagination means that these tales fill me with an enormous degree of nostalgia. Maybe this is not ‘true’ nostalgia, but I suspect that others in the class feel it, that the genre of sci-fi has retained a communal fondness for this early age, and that it still endures in contemporary young readers.

The Goal of Knowing

Both Yevgeny’s Zamyatin’s We and G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s “The Man From The Atom” discuss the possibility of an “end” to discovery — that is, an end to the unknown. In We, D-503 is hugely discomforted by I-330’s suggestion that the last revolution was not the last one, and that there is no such thing as a “last” revolution. He finds discomfort in her ideas because he believes that the last revolution, the Two Hundred Years’ War, was the end to all revolutions, and that the end goal was met–the happiness and true, “correct” nature of all persons (at least within OneState). I-330, however, debunks his thought in saying, “But [our ancestors] did one thing wrong: later they began to believe that they were the last number, a number that does not exist in nature” (We, Record 30). While I-330 is keen on believing that there is no end to discovery, particularly believing that OneState is stifling, Kirby in “The Man From The Atom” is excited about Professor Martyn’s invention not only due to its brilliance, but also because it holds promise for an end goal: “Why, don’t you realize, Professor, that this will revolutionize Science? There is nothing, hardly, that will be unknown” (63). He’s excited to risk endangering his life to test the machine due to this conceived notion that with it, nothing will be unknown, and that there will be nothing left in need of discovering. Of course, both characters do find out that things are more complicated than just “knowing all” and “knowing hardly anything” –that the journey to discovery is tricky and dangerous, and overall not what they expected.

What I find interesting is that while both characters have this notion that there is an “end” to discovery, and that all that is unknown will be known, these ideas generally go against the science fiction genre. Without the possibility of discovery, and without an “unknown” to discover, the drive behind science fiction is reduced. There usually needs to be some notion of the unknown to create a story in which discovery is possible.

Parallel Narrators and Form

While reading “The Man from the Atom,” I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the narrator and D-503, the narrator of Zamyatin’s We. Though such parallels are drawn throughout the “The Man from the Atom,” they are especially so within the first two pages. For example, the narrator explains, “I, however, though I had not the slightest claim to scientific knowledge, was romantic to a high degree, and always willing to carry out his strange experiments for the sake of the adventure and the strangeness of it all” (62). On the next page, however, he states, “I am willing to take any risks… why, don’t you realize, Professor, that this will revolutionize science” (63). These statements are contradictory; the narrator tries to save face in front of the professor, acting as a scientific martyr to cover up his real motivation, self-interest. Such self-interest is also exemplified in the narrator’s statement, “But I must tell a tale-though there is no man left to understand it” (62). Not even he understands his tale, the telling of it regardless of audience, his means to understanding and/or catharsis. This is also the case for D-503 in Zamyatin’s We. Rather than record the grandeur of the OneState, which is what he claims that he is doing, he uses writing to understand what he cannot (his internal state) and express himself. Like the narrator in “The Man from the Atom,” he also realizes that those alien lifeforms that he is writing to on behalf of the OneState may not even be able to understand him, as stressed, “Maybe you unknown people who’ll get my notes when the INTEGRAL brings them-maybe you’ve read the great book of civilization only up to the page our ancestors wrote 900 years ago. Maybe you don’t even know the basics…,” magnifying such self-interest (11).

In terms of form, both works are broken up into sections. It seems as though We is sectioned because it is composed of records written by D-503. Whereas “The Man from the Atom” may be sectioned for the sake of the reader’s clarity in a large magazine (one event per section).

The Professor and the Traveler

Something that struck me while I was reading “The Man from the Atom” was the depiction of Professor Martyn, as I was immediately reminded of the Time Traveler from Wells’ The Time Machine. Both are men of great curiosity, so much so that they are ostracized within their respective communities. Of the Professor, Kirby conveys, “Ordinary men avoided him because they were unable to understand the greatness of his vision” (“The Man from the Atom” 62). He continues, “Where he plainly saw pictures and worlds and universes, they vainly groped among pictures of his words on printed pages” (“The Man from the Atom” 62). Upon reading this, I immediately though of the Time Traveler and the information the narrator gives us as we first encounter both him and his outlandish scientific experiments. Wells writes, “The fact is, the Time Traveler was one of those men who are too clever to be believed: you never felt that you saw all around him” (The Time Machine 10). In “The Man from the Atom”, it is noted that “the Professor had few friends” (Amazing Stories 62), where we see a similar likeness in The Time Machine. “The serious people who took him seriously never felt quite sure of his deportment: they were somehow aware that trusting their reputations for judgement with him was like furnishing a nursery with eggshell china” (The Time Machine 11). Both intellectual figures in The Time Machine and “The Man from the Atom” are depicted of having both wild ambitions and audience that doesn’t quite understand them, adding a curious dimension as we explore the nature of their inventions.

 

Prompt: Early Pulps (group 2)

First, follow the guided reading assignment. Now let’s think about how pulps might be linked to the other textual worlds we have considered in the course. Choose a specific moment in “The Conquest of Gola” or “The Man from the Atom” which you can usefully compare to Wells, Rokeya, or Zamyatin. Write a paragraph in which you develop the comparison, being as specific as you can about the two texts you discuss. Avoid evaluation (“X is really science fiction but Y is not”); compare how the two texts work. It can be fruitful to think not just about content but about form and style—or about the genre signals within and around the texts as we are studying them.

No mini-essays. I mean it. Group 1 bloggers need not write (but they may). I will check the blogs around 5 p.m. on Monday evening, and I cannot give credit for entries posted after I check.

All class members: if you make discoveries or encounter difficulties as you explore the databases or the scans of pulps, please post them on the blog so that others can share in what you know or want to know! I’ll check in on the site over the weekend. (E-mail works too, of course.)

Early SF Pulps: Guided Exploration

Required readings appear in boldface.

Amazing Stories, which began its run in 1926, is commonly called the first science-fiction pulp magazine. The pulps were a key institution in the formation of a literary genre called “science fiction.” The aim of this reading is to get a sense of what kind of institution an early pulp was. Thanks to the extraordinary Pulp Magazines Project, you can access good digital scans of many issues of many pulp magazines, including Amazing. (Cheap and ephemeral at the time, these are now rare collector’s items.)

Read the short history of the magazine on the site. Then download the PDFs of the first two issues: go to the Amazing page in the archive, and right-click (or control-click) on the “PDF” links for the April 1926, May 1926, and July 1926 issues, choosing to save the file to your hard drive (these are moderately large files). Do not use the “HTML” or “FlipBook” versions, which serve different purposes.

Carefully read all paratexts (that is, everything that isn’t a story!) in the April and May issues of the magazine. Examples of paratexts are ads, editorials, the italicized notes introducing stories, tables of contents, and so on. You will have to page through every page; this is why the PDF format is important. Think about what this tells you as you do it; keep notes. Also read Gernsback’s editorial, “Fiction Versus Facts,” in the July issue.

In Amazing 1, no. 1 you will see some familiar names. Read “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Then visit this page from the American Periodicals Series database of nineteenth-century magazines and click the tab reading “Page View – PDF” so that you know what this document is. We will discuss what this means in class.

Reading “The New Accelerator” is optional, but also take a look at this page in the HathiTrust database and figure out what you’re looking at.

Now read (still in the same issue) the first part of Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom.” The second part (in the May issue) is optional.

The other required reading is in a different magazine, Wonder Stories, also run by Gernsback (though edited by David Lasser). Locate and read the Pulp Magazines Project’s short history of the title. Then read Leslie Stone’s short story “The Conquest of Gola.” The syllabus tells you all you need to know to download the PDF of the issue in which this story appears. As you read, continue to pay close attention to the paratexts.

Optional but fun: “The Man Who Evolved,” by Edmond Hamilton, in the same issue as Stone’s story.

On Zamyatin (posted for A.B.)

The passage in which D-503 reads the sonnet entitled “Happiness” is
particularly interesting to me, because it shows multiple situations of
address: the author of the sonnet to the reader, and D-503 as the reader of
a sonnet speaking to us, as the readers of D’s story. What is so
interesting is that the sonnet is titled “Happiness”, so one would think it
is full of emotion, however it paints a different picture of emotion than
we are used to. It uses numbers, which are normally seen as cold and
unfeeling, as carriers of emotion: “Forever enamored are two plus
two,/Forever conjoined in blissful four./The hottest lovers in all the
world:” (page 65, Record 12) The unexpected personification of numbers in
this poem entitled “Happiness” tells us about the art and literature in D’s
world. What’s more, D’s reaction to the poem tells us how citizens think of
the world they are living in: “There’s nothing happier than figures that
live according to the elegant and eternal laws of the multiplication table,
No wavering, no wandering. The truth is one, and the true path is one.”
This stands in stark contrast to how poems of the “ancients” were, full of
jealousy and greed and hurt people. D’s reaction to the poem shows us that
the world he lives in is highly regimented, with no freedoms to disagree,
and what’s more, that the people find absolute beauty in that.

[posted for A.B. by AG to get around technical difficulties]

Originality: the Inherent Inequality of Man

“She was wearing an old-fashioned dress, short, bright yellow, and had on a black hat and black stockings.  The dress was made of a very thin silk–I could clearly see that the stockings were long and came way above her knees.  And the neck was cut very low, with the shadow between her…

‘Listen,’ I said, ‘it’s clear that you want to show off your originality, but do you really have to..’

‘It’s clear,’ she broke in, ‘that to be original means to distinguish yourself from others.  It follows that to be original is to violate the principle of equality.  And what the ancients called, in their idiotic language, ‘being banal’ is what we call ‘just doing your duty’. Because…'”–(Zamyatin 30).

It is unacceptable to be original in this society because originality–the concept of being unique–is inherently difference and that clashes with the idea of a utopia (or in this case, a dystopia) where people are all meant to be similar and equal.  Of course the idea of equality to the fullest measure is impossible!  There is no natural way of making everyone the same, both physically and mentally.  In this scene, I-303 comes out in this dress which is very different from what everyone is made to wear in this society.  D-503 looks at her and immediately gets angry to the point where he accuses her, “do you really have to…”.

The values that we think important in our society is totally flipped on its head in this dystopia because emotion and difference are made to be non-existent. Most people love their originality but here, the Numbers take pride in the fact that they are the same.  In fact, when D-503 notices any difference, like his monkey hands, he immediately is ashamed because it makes him stand out from the other Numbers. This, in his perspective within the context of this society, is both unacceptable and not to be tolerated.

Dangerous Nostalgia

“And now we stopped in front of the mirror.  At that moment all I could see were her eyes.  An idea hit me: The way the human body is built, it’s just as stupid as those ‘apartments’- human heads are opaque and there’s no way to see inside except through those tiny little windows, the eyes.  She seemed to guess what I was thinking and turned around.  ‘Well, here are my eyes.  What do you think?’  (Without actually saying this, of course.)

I saw before me two ominously dark windows, and inside there was another life, unknown.  All I could see was a flame–there was some sort of ‘fireplace’ inside–and some figures, that looked…

That would be natural, of course.  What I saw there was my own reflection.  But it was not natural and it did not look like me (apparently the surroundings were having a depressing effect).  I felt absolutely afraid, I felt trapped, shut into that wild cage, I felt myself swept into the wild whirlwind of ancient life.”

Record 6, page 28-29

Although it could be argued that D-503 is weakened (albeit near-imperceptibly) in his beliefs prior to his first visit to the Ancient House, it is this trip that truly brings about a sense that his foundation is being shaken- entirely due to, it seems, the machinations of the mysterious I-330.  This passage in particular draws attention to his obvious, dutiful disgust for the things of the past–and, more specifically, the things that are illegal in OneState–but it also highlights his fascination with them.  He does not outright express any such sentiment, but it is more than evident in the tone of his account, particularly when he trails off, describing the scene he ‘witnesses’ behind I-330’s eyes.  There is an inarguable amount of reverence in it.  At this point in the narrative (still relatively early on), it would be acceptable to expect that he is not anywhere near ready to change.  However, the way in which he faithfully records his discovery of “another life, unknown” and the “wild whirlwind of ancient life” seems so charmingly accidental–on the part of D-503, certainly not on the part of Zamyatin–and it could be seen as almost akin to the way in which someone might inadvertently reveal their romantic feelings for another.  From this, Zamyatin provides readers with a common trope found in many dystopian novels: nostalgia for a time long before the story takes place that, in the narrative’s current environment, is strictly forbidden for the sake of the maintenance of order.  Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 exemplifies this.

D-503, from this point forward, becomes a character that we want to see tainted and drawn away from the norms of his restrictive society; we need him to be freed from the shackles of his banality because we very desperately want him to return to the comforts of ‘before’, of our own society, of normalcy within individuality.  “Me”, rather, instead of “We”.  D-503 is viciously torn between his current state, upon which he frequently rains unconditional praise, and the scary unknown that I-330 continues to push him into as the novel progresses, and it is this internal and external conflict that propels the narrative forward.  Moreover, his records become far more vibrant (albeit panicked and filled with inner turmoil) due to this forbidden nostalgia he has been so mercilessly infected with.  As a result, We is able to engender a sense of suspense and dread–a feeling almost inseparable from the dystopian genre–with regard to D-503’s fate as an admirer of the ‘ancient world’ in this harshly-regimented new one.

The Idea of Having to Explain

“Perhaps you do not know even about such elementary things as the Table of Hours, the Personal Hour, the Maternity Norm, the Green Wall, and the Benefactor.  It seems to me ridiculous yet very difficult to speak about all this. It is as if a writer of, say, the twentieth century had to explain in his novel the meaning of “coat,” or “apartment,” or “wife.” Yet, if his novel were to be translated for savages, how could he avoid explaining what a “coat” meant… and so it is with me: I cannot imagine a life that is not clad in a Green Wall; I cannot imagine a life that is not regulated by the figures of our Table,” (10-11, Zamyatin).

Starting this book, you are immediately thrown into the daily accounts of the narrator and this new world of human order that he lives in. He speaks of things like the Green Wall and the Table and he refers to people as numbers and to our generation as ancients, without any explanation at all. We are just dropped smack into this world. But, at the start of his third entry, which to me was one of the most interesting, he acknowledges that he has not explained any of the terminology in which he uses, just expecting anyone who reads his entries to already understand what he is saying and what it all means. What stuck out to me the most about this revelation was how he admitted that he was wrong to do this, and then continued to explain why he did by putting it in our generation’s lay-person terms. He uses ordinary every day items and concepts, such as wife, coat, and apartment, things that are universal to all peoples and cultures of our time, to get us to understand the universality of the terms in which he is using. These are objects or concepts that we would never have to explain to another person, such as he has never had to explain his to another person. There is just a collective knowing. But, going over his previous entries he reflects on this notion and realizes that the audience that he is addressing might not know what he is talking about, and they might be incredibly lost delving into the world in which he is so used to. As he says at the end of the above quoted passage, he has never known a world without these things, so to think of a world that doesn’t have them is not a first thought, therefore, he never felt the need to explain in detail, the concepts of his world. To me, this part was so interesting because he is being so vulnerable and honest about this mistake and trying to relate to whoever might be reading, by explaining that this is the only world he’s ever known. For us, we know our world inside and out and would never think of explaining what elections or college or marriage is to someone. Everyone knows what those terms are. He is helping us get into the mindset of someone who is speaking to peoples completely outside of his world and what that must feel/be like, and helping us have a better grounding in this world and in how he thinks.