When writers think about the future it's often in dichotomous terms. Writers generally see the future in shades of black and white, with very little deviation between the two. This is particularly the case in the novels Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. The former is an optimistic tale about a socialist utopia which essentially describes a future full of improvements. The latter describes a futuristic dystopia where humans lack autonomy and privacy. In spite of these incredibly different descriptions and notions about the future, there's still a significant amount of overlap between these two novels. Exploring the different shades of each can provide a deeper understanding of each respective author's inner fears and wishes. As different as these two novels appear to be, they are both actually stories about societies which have made the ultimate (and wrong) sacrifice: they've given up their freedom for materialistic, societal, or organizational comforts. Both novels show without a doubt, that these societies have paid dearly for such seemingly safe choices.
Looking Backward's socialist utopia is a portrait painted of a world that has been seemingly improved upon, some might argue, as it describes a world where things like poverty and hunger are eliminated. Exploited labor and working in poor conditions has become a thing of the past. Retirement is now at age 45 for all people. The productivity of the nation is owned by the nation which allows the country to distribute goods to its people in an equitable fashion. To many this is indeed a description of Utopia. It means that there are no more haves vs. have-nots. If everything is equal, just and fair, then there is no more greed and tremendous amount of crime is eliminated as well as human suffering. So much of the business exchanges between human beings, companies or entities can be a cause of suffering, desire and greed. The plot of this book eliminates these negative elements because it eliminates the need for exchange. For instance, Dr. Leete explains how in the past, money and trade were necessary because the good remained in the private sector; once these goods were moved to the national or government sector, the need for money and traded was eradicated, and with it the negative feelings and actions that can go along with these elements, such as fear, envy, desire, gluttony "When innumerable different and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary" (Bellamy). Eliminating money and with it, the love of money as well as the envy of the poor for those who have more than them, is essentially an elimination of so many of the evils of society, one could argue. This proposed schema is a definitive method of leveling the playing field of the unhappiness that socioeconomic classes can create.
However, without the social classes, along with the greed, fear and desire that is present in capitalist societies, there almost appears to be an elimination of identity. Bellamy has eliminated a way for there to be individual achievement or accomplishment that goes with note. Fundamentally, Bellamy has painted a picture of severe equality, and in doing so, he has eliminated individuality. The elimination of individuality is an aspect which permeates throughout Zamyatin's We. People no longer have names, but numbers, with odd numbers (and consonants) and even numbers (and vowels) distinguishing men from women. People were identical garments and have to walk in time with one another. The dystopia that Zamyatin has described is completely devoid of individuality with a remarkable absence of freedom, even a restriction on freedom of movement. This dystopia lacks privacy as well; citizens live in a metropolitan nation made entirely out of glass where they are watched. While these two descriptions of the future written at two entirely different times in history might seem completely different, that is just a superficial impression. There's a soul-less-ness to both of the concepts of Bellamy and Zamyatin, that can't help to pervade their writing. With Bellamy some of that soul-less-ness pervades the text easily: the story is so simple it's almost absent. In its absence, simply political and socialist dogma pervade. As one scholar illuminates about Bellamy: "Those who attribute his idealistic visions of the 21st century to a naive optimist make a serious mistake. Bellamy spent most of his adult life steep in the deepest melancholy and despair" (Sancton, 538). This melancholy is apparent in his writing as much of his ideology for equality represents an absence of the humanity of the masses. Through establishing ideas for widespread equality, as a means of eliminating the bloody class war was inherently flawed in many ways; just as flawed, one could argue as the panoptic nation described in Zamyatin's We, just less overtly so.
"Bellamy's portrayal of a state-planned economy -- and reader's today cannot help but shudder over its marked resemblance to the many varieties of militaristic totalitarianism that would soon follow" (Tumber, 610). What Bellamy describes, while positive or simply idealistic, has all the makings for an imprisoned society and a totalitarian regime and one which is not so distinct from what Zamyatin describes. "Every morning with six-wheeled precision, at the very same hour and the very same minute, we get up, millions of us, as though we were one. At the very same hour, millions of us as one, we start work. Later, millions as one, we stop. And then, like one body with a million hands, at one and the same second according to the Table, we lift the spoon to our lips" (Zamyatin 13). There's a decidedly eerie quality of automaton-ness to the society that's being described, a unison which lacks soul and individuality and which is devoid of human freedom and dignity. As one of Zamyatin's characters states, "I've read and heard a lot of unbelievable stuff about those times when people lived in freedom-that is, in disorganized wildness" (Zamyatin 13). In both Bellamy and Zamyatin's societies, that must be how freedom looks from the outside, like a form of chaos that's dangerous and can too easily breed crime.
These societies have a concrete organization, an answer for everything, a strategy and a mode of method for advancement. However, all of these elements come at a price. In Bellamy's world, the price eradicates greed but eliminates the desire for extreme personal achievement. In fact one could argue that both Bellamy and Zamyatin create a world where there will be no Bill Gates, no Michael Jordans, no Salvador Dalis, and no Sylvia Plaths: there will be no one to excel or to thrive against the overwhelming homogeneity of the masses. In Bellamy's world so much of the need and disadvantage and desire to shine is what motivates the manifestation of talent is squelched by the complacency which can develop when people do not want for anything. It is too mechanic, it is too static and it is too unrealistic (Wood).
In Zamyatin's world, the individuality and uniqueness of people has been squelched down so far it can barely exist as individuals simply exists as identical cogs in the wheel in the great machine of serving the state. In both novels, an extreme price has been paid by…