This is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. I finished reading it a couple days ago; I’ve been pondering it since and still I can’t make heads or tails of it. Seriously, I think about three quarters of the book went straight over my head. Not just in the thematic, symbolic way of things, but in the plot. Really, the general plot was fairly simple. The book takes place many centuries in the future, with a race of people who work like mathematical machines. They live inside a city covered by a glass dome wall, and all of their buildings are translucent. They eat petroleum-based food. There is absolutely no nature inside their city – in fact, none of them have ever seen even the sun undiluted. Everything runs on a time table: you chew 50 times for each bite (at the same time as everyone else), you sleep at the same time as everyone else, you have personal hours at the same time, etc. Everything is regulated, down to the days and hours you’re allowed to have sex, and with whom. There is no freedom, and this is thus equated with happiness. With freedom, there is no happiness – or so says the philosophy of this society.
Apparently this book, in one sense, is a retelling of the Garden of Eden story, from an obviously dystopian rather than utopian viewpoint. Jason pointed that out to me from some criticism he’d read, but I doubt I would have caught that on my own (though it seems obvious now that he said it). The main character, D-503, is a perfect little cog in the system, until he runs across I-330 and falls in love. He considers this a sickness. Even dreaming is a sickness. D-503 becomes severely sick: he develops a “soul.” His semi-girlfriend, I-330, is part of a rebel group called MEPHI which is bent on freeing the people in this metropolis. They create mass chaos at one point, when they finally reveal themselves, and later blow a hole in the glass wall. I won’t tell anyone how it ends, though; that’s enough spoilers.
It seems pretty straightforward, yes? I don’t know, maybe I’m just not good at the science fiction thing. There were several problems, I think, that contributed to my absolute ignorance. First, this is translated from Russian, and I think maybe I would have understood it better in its original language. Too bad I can’t read Russian. Second, it is written in the form of D-503′s diary, which makes the narrative scant. D-503 is unaware what his readers do and do not know about their society, so there are things that he takes for granted, which is all well and good for the book’s style but doesn’t help the reader any. Third, the race of people seem to be quite different from humans now, so I was confused sometimes. For example, D-503′s assigned girlfriend, O-90, really wants to have a baby, but she’s too short of the “maternal norm.” No, I don’t know where she falls short, or if it’s literally a height thing. But either way, this is a very big deal for her, and she really wants a baby, and at one point she induces D-503 to give her one. Now D-503 and O-90 have their sex days every couple days, so I’m not sure why on this one instance, she can yell, “Give me a baby!” and he just does, without question or uncertainty. I don’t know what is physically different about these people that makes that possible. But I take that for granted as something I simply don’t know about their race. But then, what appeared to me to be only a week or two later, O-90 is round and about a month off from having the baby. At that point, I don’t know if I’ve mistaken the timeline and it’s really been 8 months instead of 2 weeks, or if they’re just different physical beings and have their babies in rapid time periods (Oh man, I wish I could have had 6-week long full pregnancies!). It’s this sort of confusion that plagued me throughout the whole narrative.
We, along with 1984 and Brave New World, were at one time considered the “definitive trilogy” of dystopian novels (they may be now, too, but I’m not sure, the essay I read was from 50 years ago). While the latter two are political, I’m not sure if this one is. It might be. But frankly, I missed so much of the plot that there was just about no way I could read on two levels to try to tell what the meaning was behind the metaphor. I don’t think if I read it 10 more times that I’d understand it much better. I’d probably need to be back in a college class with an expert or to sit around doing research on my own to get a grasp of what’s in there. I’m not knocking the book, though. It appears to be well-written (though it’s hard to tell, considering it’s a translation), and there’s certainly a lot of depth. It’s science fiction, but it defies its genre, and I really respect that. It isn’t often that a book goes over my head, so that increases my respect for it, and I wasn’t bored reading it, even if I was often confused. So overall, I’d say this is a good book, even if it’s one of the weirdest, most disorienting things I’ve ever read.
Note: This book was reread and re-reviewed in October 2011, with far more insight than I had here in 2008.