Dark Curricula: April 2017
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. --P.K. Dick
Describing this book with ordinary language cannot be sufficient. You'll end up sounding like you're rambling, like you're in a deep amphetamine rush. You'll end up sounding like the narrator, D-503. That is, you've attempted to remain calm and rational, tightly contained in a tightly structured society, but the farther in you get the more explosive the anxiety and struggle becomes. It is claustrophobic, often feverish.
This book was the direct inspiration for Orwell's 1984. An inspiration for many other utopian/dystopian works. I see some of it in Fritz Lang's Metropolis and THX 1138. We're all familiar with the ideas in this book, and they're used now as tropes, without really knowing where they came from. Things like individuals without names, only numeric designations, ubiquitous uniforms and monoculture. There is no privacy, the world of "We" is one of actual glass walls. Sexual activity is scheduled. Everyone knows everything about everyone else. Emotions and reactions are strictly regulated. Dreaming is deviance. Drugs and operations normalize behaviors and thoughts. Executions are cultural events.
But at the time these weren't yet tropes--some handy literary decoration to hang on your corporate entertainment product. They were conceived of thoroughly by Zamyatin back in 1920, and distancing a bit from the absurdity of right now, to contemplate that, it is remarkable.
This was written as a reaction to the rise of the Communist Russia. It was the first work banned by the Soviet censorship bureau, it wouldn't be published in the USSR until 1988. Now that Communism is gone from the world as a state and political power it's impossible for me to read it accurately in that context. But I think it's worth a try. This fervent, exclamation point riddled text, of avant-garde Russian literature written deserves meditation.
In the end there's a Herman Hesse quality here. A narrative that is about passion in passionless enforcement, about transformation and revolution outside of social bounds--"the green wall" which holds back all the dirty hairy things outside calculation. The I-330 muse, and effective revolutionary, leading the main character through a maze of mental and social constructs. These feel like Hesse things. The setting though is radically modernist and symbolic. I think it's obvious why the censors would ban it, since the thing comes at you with the subtly of a freight train. It isn't an easy read, but as the origin of so many different dystopian forks, worth reading.
The Wasp Factory
I admit I once tried reading Consider Phlebas, another Bank's title, but I couldn't get through it. I know it is revered, and that series is loved, I think I'm just allergic to space opera, it reads like a task.
This, however, isn't scifi. This is black comedy. Like all good black comedies, I hope you feel bad for finding it funny, you're an awful person. For instance Frank, the young psychotic who narrates the book, kills one of his young cousins by attaching her to an enormous kite which floats out across the North Sea. And he tricks his young brother into repeatedly hammering away at a half buried WW2 bomb found on the beach. Frank also wages constant war against the rabbits and other animals of his Scottish home, and constructs a mechanism to kill wasps in ways that will divine the future. Hence "Wasp Factory". His monuments and cruelty are driven by rituals and magical thinking. He repeatedly talks on the phone with his other brother, the insane dog-eating mental asylum escapee Eric. The book is tone perfect, wry, absurd, horrifying at times, yes. But this isn't Holden Caulfield, it isn't rebellion against authority, this is more of a character study with the occasional larger point of "who is sane and what is sanity anyway and my dwarf friend Jamie drinks too much". The characters overshadow philosophical implications, which is OK.
The ending is a bit off. In that, it felt like Banks wanted to end it, and with something climatic, some big sort of reveal, and I just didn't think it fit with the rest of the book. But hey, endings are hard.