December 2012

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

In this episode of the Libertarian Tradition podcast series, part of the Mises Institute’s online media library, Jeff Riggenbach makes the case that Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian science fiction novel, We, belongs in the libertarian tradition.

You can also read the transcript below:

When we think of the libertarian tradition, we tend naturally to think of political philosophers and economists of the past. But surely one part of the libertarian tradition belongs to novelists and other fiction writers.

In earlier podcasts in this series, I’ve already discussed two such figures: Ayn Rand, whose 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, is, arguably, one of the half-dozen most important libertarian works of the 20th century, and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the professor of philology at Oxford whose giant fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings, published just a few years before Atlas Shrugged, is arguably the most culturally influential single novel published in English in the 20th century.

This week, I’d like to talk about a writer whose level of influence has been much more modest, but whose indirect influence has nevertheless been considerable. Regular listeners to this series know what I mean by indirect influence. I gave an example of it just last week, when I discussed the life and career of Isabel Paterson. Paterson’s libertarian classic, The God of the Machine, has never reached a wide readership, but, thanks to the effort of her protégé, Ayn Rand, Paterson herself has influenced millions of readers who have never even seen a copy of The God of the Machine.

The writer I’m talking about today wrote a novel in which a citizen of a totalitarian state of the future meets a woman and becomes obsessed with her. He begins a forbidden sexual affair with this woman, meeting with her illicitly in a very old part of the city where the intrusive gaze of the all-encompassing government doesn’t seem to penetrate. Through his relationship with her, he becomes involved in the organized underground opposition to the all-encompassing government — an opposition he had never previously realized existed at all. Ultimately, he and the woman are caught, imprisoned, and tortured. In the end, he is sincerely repentant of his crimes and is completely devoted to the all-encompassing government that has done him all this harm.

A familiar story, no? Can you tell me what novel I’ve just described? Ah, I see a hand in the back of the room. Yes? “George Orwell’s 1984,” you cry out confidently. And your answer is correct, but only as far as it goes, which is, perhaps, not quite as far as you thought it would.

That is a description of the plot of 1984, which was published, as we all know, in 1949. But Orwell adapted the plot of 1984 from another novel, one originally published 25 years earlier in 1924. That earlier novel was entitled, simply, We. It was the work of a not-very-well-known Russian writer, Yevgeny Zamyatin. Zamyatin was not very well known outside Russia when We was first published, and he was still not very well known in the West 25 years later, when Orwell published 1984. He remains not very well known in the West to this day.

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Blade Runner

Blade Runner

There are many elements of science fiction that find their way into stories that are not science fiction. Many times, enthusiasts of the genre will try to claim these works as part of the family. Atlas Shrugged and 1984 are examples. The same thing happens, only more frequently, with noir. Sometimes, the mere presence of a morally ambiguous protagonist is enough for a piece to be so labeled.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, however, is a rare work — quite possibly unique — that may fit both bills. While perhaps not classically noir, there is no denying a strong noir presence, and its science fiction credentials are beyond question, what with the flying cars and androids, called replicants, and off-world colonies. As a devotee of both genres, I quite naturally am a fan of the director’s third film, but watching it is an experience both frustrating and pleasant. It is a good movie, but not the great one it could have been.

Alien, Scott’s second feature, is a masterpiece whose best form made it to the silver screen. One simply cannot imagine a better version. Blade Runner, however, is a movie whose perfect version was never realized, whose potential was never reached. That mirage of the ideal Blade Runner intrudes on my thoughts every so often, and I find myself reaching for the DVD, thinking that perhaps this will be the viewing where I get it, where I notice that missing part or make that important connection.

It never works out that way. As usually happens in life, experience trumps hope. The movie simply is not as good as it ought to have been, and the reason is the plot. This is all the more tragic given that Philip K. Dick, in the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, had already provided a first-rate plot that was later diluted over multiple drafts of the screeenplay.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is probably Philip K. Dick’s most famous work, given that it was turned into one of the most respected science fiction films of all time. I do not hold to the absolutist opinion that the book is always better than the movie, but after one read of the book and many viewings of the movie, I am inclined to say that, in this instance, the book is at least as good and in some respects is better.

Rick Deckard, along with numerous other unfortunate souls, has been left behind on Earth, an unhealthy wasteland from which anyone of means has migrated. He is the number two man assigned to retire rogue androids who try to pass themselves off as human. The androids, however, prefer to remain alive.

Deckard makes a modest living, but when the number one guy is nearly killed by an android, he assumes the responsibility to retire a group of six of them, seeing in the job an opportunity to make some much-needed cash. Insert canned line about things not going as planned. Insert second canned line about the job being more than he bargained for.

As I expected, the clownish dialogue and behavior, unnecessarily detailed descriptions and lengthy back stories injected into scenes immediately after a character’s introduction — the slipshod method by which so many authors introduce and develop their characters — is absent. Instead, we meet people who feel and act real, and we come to know them as we would anyone else: by how they act, what they say, and what is said about them. They move about in an exotic land but act in accordance with their human goals and abilities.

What I found surprising was how good the plot was. There is a satisfying quantity and variety of dramatic interactions, various obstacles to overcome, a sufficiently grand and tense third act… everything an eager reader could hope for. I did not expect a poorly wrought narrative, but given some of the difficulties I found in The Man in the High Castle, I thought that maybe character and setting were Dick’s strengths, not plot. The movie, as good as it is, strikes one as underplotted, and I assumed this was due to a deficiency on the book’s part.

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The Hobbit

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A director returns, after several years and more than one lackluster attempt with other kinds of movies, to a genre he redefined. He had some little known but modestly successful works before his big breakthrough, but since then he just has not been the same man who gave us such an epic, fantastic spectacle full of industry-defining special effects, wonderful music, thrilling action, and, above all, a new world to explore with characters we wanted to accompany. Special effects have come a ways since his magnum opus was crafted, and if used correctly they have the potential to enhance the visual experience even more than before. What could possibly go wrong?

Peter Jackson’s latest project is out in theaters. I wish I could say it was called The Hobbit, but honesty compels me to report that the name is actually The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The reason for the alteration is that The Hobbit will be brought to us not as a short adventure thrill ride, in keeping with the pace and feel of the source material, but rather will be extended into a movie trilogy that, when finished, will outlast a typical BBC miniseries. The motive behind this sort of reverse editing, whereby Tolkien’s notes were raided for things to stuff into the story and plump it up, is Mr. Jackson’s belief that we are stupid enough to triple his box office take if he triples the number of movies to be made from the story. He is probably right. I know I bought my ticket.

Even with his triumphs Jackson had a tendency to let a project get bloated. The best example, I believe, is the sudden barrage of scenes that hit us in The Two Towers right as we should be, could be, would be cruising toward the third act if a drawn-out and apocryphal love story were not fed to us by way of flashbacks, many in a languid, dreamy style that makes one wonder if one has just witnessed something shot wholly in slow motion. When Jackson had over 1,000 pages of material to convert to nine hours of footage this was an annoyance. With The Hobbit, he has fewer than 300 pages to make into nine hours and the filler has now surpassed the beef in the hotdog.

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