Translated from the Russian by Natasha Randall
Ms. Hen decided to read this novel because she learned about it from the afterword in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. She had never heard of it before. She is interested in dystopian fiction, and some people think this book is the first of its kind.
This novel was not published in the Soviet Union when the author wrote it because it was too scandalous. It was first published in Prague. The author was sent to exile a couple of times in the Soviet Union for writing things against the government. Ms. Hen thinks it is outrageous that someone should be sent to jail for writing a book, but that is the way things were in that country back then.
This novel is about a mathematician who is building a ship, the Integral, to go to space. The rigid society tells the ciphers (people) when to do everything they have to do, when to wake up, when to work, when to eat. When the ciphers want to be intimate with each other, they have to get permission for the “blind drawing,” to draw their blinds, which are always up; everyone can see into everyone else’s rooms unless the blinds are drawn. The city and everything in it are made of glass.
The narrator, D-503, (all the ciphers have a code and not a name) writes a chronicle of what happens. He meets another cipher and is intrigued when she takes him to the Ancient House, a place full of objects from before the revolution. The narrator talks a lot about the past, it seems as if he is writing a letter to the author about the world he lives in. Everyone has a routine for the day, but the narrator gets caught up in a situation with a woman, and starts to fall in love. He doesn’t understand how he could develop a soul, but he does, and suffers because of it.
Ms. Hen noticed that this novel seems to be about Soviet Russia and not the future. The author appears to be critiquing the way his country was headed at the time he wrote this. All the ciphers are supposed to be part of something bigger than themselves, and it does not matter where they stand individually. He likens the society to a scale, on one end of the scale is an item that weighs a ton, on the other is a gram, and what happens to the ton matters more than the gram; the whole matters more than the small amount.
Ms. Hen learned reading the introduction that the narrator speaks in equations. Ms. Hen is not a math expert, but she understands how this is true. The narrator would make a statement, then there would be a colon, and then something would equal the beginning of that statement. Ms. Hen would like to talk to someone who has read the novel who understands math better than she does to explain how this works, but unfortunately Ms. Hen is not acquainted with a mathematician or even someone proficient in math. Those are the circles she runs in: no math experts around Ms. Hen, just artistic and ordinary people.
This is a short book, but a dense one. Ms. Hen read it quickly because she had time. This novel is beautifully written and important. It is considered one of the first science fiction novels ever written, and it was written before the term science fiction was invented. Ms. Hen recommends this novel if you want to be disturbed and enlightened, and she does not understand why you wouldn’t want to be.
Below is a short film based on WE that Ms. Hen found by chance.