The ambitions harbored on that Halloween fell very far short of such a milestone as this, so it seems only fitting to mark the terra incognita of day 2001 with a reflection on the death penalty in the futuristic oeuvre.
It was Thomas More — eventually himself the headsman’s patient — who coined the term Utopia; in the novel of that name, More places in the mouth of the emissary from the island-nation of Utopia a trenchant critique of harsh Tudor-era justice, with mere thieves “hanged so fast that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet,” which “was neither just in itself nor good for the public; for as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual.”
Utopia, by contrast, puts thieves to labor to compensate for the injury they have done, and it’s all very superficially dignified (except that you get flogged if you resist). But Utopia and all utopias must grapple at some point with the citizen who does not abide the ordained social contract: Thomas More, who as Chancellor did not scruple to kill heretics, confines his penal slaves not with armed guards and barbed wire but with the certain threat of annihilation.
Their friends are allowed to give them either meat, drink, or clothes so they are of their proper color, but it is death, both to the giver and taker, if they give them money; nor is it less penal for any freeman to take money from them, upon any account whatsoever: and it is also death for any of these slaves (so they are called) to handle arms. Those of every division of the country are distinguished by a peculiar mark; which it is capital for them to lay aside, to go out of their bounds, or to talk with a slave of another jurisdiction; and the very attempt of an escape is no less penal than an escape itself; it is death for any other slave to be accessory to it … the very having of money is a sufficient conviction: and as they are certainly punished if discovered, so they cannot hope to escape; for their habit being in all the parts of it different from what is commonly worn, they cannot fly away … The only danger to be feared from them is their conspiring against the government: but those of one division and neighborhood can do nothing to any purpose, unless a general conspiracy were laid among all the slaves of the several jurisdictions, which cannot be done, since they cannot meet or talk together.
Maybe he’s not weighing down an overcrowded gibbet, but the thief has suffered a waking civil death; to budge an inch from his place is enough to plummet to his doom. The dystopian genre need only widen this chasm until the whole island falls in.
In the 20th century, once advancing industry had seemingly placed comprehensive social reordering within practical grasp, the dystopian gaze likewise swallowed up the utopian.
When H.G. Wells, perpetrator of several utopian novels (including one literally titled A Modern Utopia) toured the Soviet Union in 1920, Russia was engaged in what Wells and many others expected was a utopian endeavor.
The “proletarian poet” — a distinct literary circle after the October Revolution — Vladimir Kirillov* celebrated the godlike power mere workers now exercised in “The Iron Messiah,” which begins thus:**
There he is — the savior, the lord of the earth.
The master of titanic forces —
In the roar of countless steel machines,
In the radiance of electric suns.
We thought he would appear in a sunlight stole,
With a nimbus of divine mystery,
But he came to us clad in gray smoke
From the suburbs, foundries, factories.
We thought he would appear in glory and glitter,
Meek, blessedly gentle,
But he, like the molten lava,
Came — multiface and turbulent …
There he walks o’er the abyss of seas,
All of steel, unyielding and impetuous;
He scatters sparks of rebellious thought,
And the purging flames are pouring forth.
The writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, a communist revolutionary who was also an engineer and had supervised industrial icebreaker construction in Britain, was one of the men employed in producing Russian translations of Wells’s sunny forecasts of technocratic progress.
Perhaps in response to Wells — and certainly in response to his dismay over the chilling climate for dissident art — Zamyatin penned the seminal 1921 dystopian novel We (it can be read free online in this pdf). We would be distinguished as the first book banned by Soviet censorship; it was smuggled to the west and published in 1924, but it didn’t see print in the Soviet Union until glasnost.
In We, it is the future “One State” that stands as lord of the earth and master of titanic forces. In a world without privacy or dreams, Numbers (i.e., people) build a spaceship called Integral at the command of the Benefactor. The novel explicitly counterposes freedom and (material) happiness; the perfectly ordered, clockwork One State has the latter and therefore organizes explicitly to preserve its non-freedom, “for freedom and crime are as closely related as — well, as the movement of an aero and its speed: if the speed of an aero equals zero, the aero is motionless; if human liberty is equal to zero, man does not commit any crime.”
More’s Utopia executes enslaved criminals who attempt to regain their liberty; Zamyatin’s Benefactor simply executes anyone who attempts to acquire liberty in the first place. And these are not only bodily executions: before putting to public death a seditious poet, a state-friendly writer “named” R-13 (Numbers, you see) delivers a benediction celebrating the One State/Benefactor’s Promethean achievement: “he harnessed fire / With machines and steel / And fettered chaos with Law.” It sounds a little like Kirillov.
Then the execution proceeds:
Swayed by an unknown wind, the criminal moved; one step … one more … then the last step in his life. His face was turned to the sky, his head thrown back — he was on his last … Heavy, stony like fate, the Benefactor went around the machine, put his enormous hand on the lever … Not a whisper, not a breath around; all eyes were upon that hand … What crushing, scorching power one must feel to be the tool, to be the resultant of hundreds of thousands of wills! How great his lot!
Another second. The hand moved down, switching in the current. The lightning-sharp blade of the electric ray … A faint crack like a shiver, in the tubes of the Machine … The prone body, covered with a light phosphorescent smoke; then, suddenly, under the eyes of all, it began to melt, to dissolve with terrible speed. And then nothing; just a pool of chemically pure water which only a moment ago had been so red and had pulsated in his heart.
Public execution in the film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale.
In 1921, We was a fantastic, satirical riff; by the time Zamyatin died in exile in 1937, We looked prophetic of the unfolding Stalinist nightmare — and still more, as Orwell put it in an enthusiastic review, of the entire project of industrial civilization. Looking around him, Orwell couldn’t help but notice that the executioner who was a vaguely embarrassing footnote for More’s utopia actually turned out to be central to the whole project — maybe even the purpose of the whole project. “The object of persecution is persecution,” says the torturer O’Brien in Orwell’s own dystopian classic 1984. “The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
1984 unabashedly cribs its plot from Zamyatin; its protagonist’s day job (until he falls foul of
the BenefactorBig Brother) is the artistic half of the butcher’s job, rewriting purged “unpersons” out of history like the fallen communist officials disappeared from official photographs. Kurt Vonnegut said that his first novel Player Piano (also published as Utopia-14) “cheerfully ripped off the plot of (Aldous Huxley’s) Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.”
English literature aside, it was central and eastern Europe that bore the brunt of the 20th century’s totalitarian experiments; small wonder that these were also a key crucible of dystopian literary experimentation. “We were born,” ran a gallows jest among 1930s Soviet writers, “to turn Kafka into reality.”
As this gruesome site begins its third thousand days† of picking over women and men made meat under the machines of whichever benefactors, our extra morsel is an original literary review of a horrific Czech dystopian novella that deserves to be better-known in English. What follows is by Slavic literature expert Bora Chung.
Nobody knows Martin Harnícek. He was not executed; in fact he is still alive and well. Harnícek was born in 1952 in former Czechoslovakia. He used to work as a male nurse at mental institutions. And he wrote. Somewhere in the 1970s Harnícek wrote a novella titled Maso. In Czech, maso means meat.
The narrator (he doesn’t have a name) begins his story at the Meat Market. His dream is to go to the First-Class Hall one day. The problem is, he does not have the necessary number of meat cards. In fact he doesn’t have any meat card. If he gets caught at the Market with no card on him – and there are random inspections just to sort out people like him – he will be executed. Then the fresh meat from his dead body will go to the much-desired First-Class Hall. And then to the Second-Class, if nobody picks it up and it starts to go bad. And finally to the Third-Class Hall if the meat spoils completely. You see what the title means.
Inside the Market there are butchers, policemen (no women) in red uniforms, customers with (or without) meat cards, and vagrants. And this is pretty much the entire structure of the City itself. There are policemen. Everywhere. And there are the fortunate few with sufficient number of meat cards: the ones registered at a legitimate address. But if the house gets condemned, either because it was attacked by the police or by other vagrants, the place is no longer legitimate and the residents themselves become vagrants. And instead of butchers (who can slaughter people legally) there are street-gangs (who will slaughter people illegally). These are organized vagrants, helping one another to rob other unfortunate fellow citizens of their meat cards and/or their meat.
If there are other trades in this world, we’re not privy to them: no plumbers, no construction workers, no contractors. No wonder the houses are so quickly falling apart. More and more of them are getting condemned. Vagrants especially target wooden houses, to tear down the walls for firewood in their resource-poor world. That’s how the nameless narrator lost his place of residence. That’s why he had to sneak into the Meat Market without a card.
So our guy stays there at the Market and becomes a vagrant. But see, he has no meat card of his own. So has to rely on stealing. That can work out for only so long. After a whole lot of incidents and adventures he finally decides to run for his life. He sneaks back out of the Market and into the streets and he runs and runs until he crosses the City border without realizing it.
Now this is where the story gets interesting.
Crossing the City borders should have meant instant death to him by City regulations, and it very nearly does get him killed by roving vagrants who attempt to prey on him. But outside the City he finds a self-sustaining utopian community. The people there are mostly themselves defectors from the City. And their families. Real, loving families. Husbands and wives. Sons and daughters. Kindness, care, affection abound. These good people find our guy in a very bad shape. They take him in, take care of him, bring him back to health.
So our guy gets back on his feet.
The first thing he does? Attacks his benefactor’s daughter. He tries to rape her, the girl resists and dies in the process, and the guy tries to eat her because to him it’s precious fresh meat.
But it’s a community, and a utopian community at that. People hear the girl scream. They come running and catch our guy literally red-handed. Now he has to run again. He ends up back at the City and is slaughtered by a Police officer.
“I knew that in a few moments I would be in the Market, in the First-Class Hall, like I always desired. I realized it very clearly, but it didn’t make me happy at all.”
Advanced dystopian devices: cannibalism.
Well, the reader can see from the beginning that this guy is doomed. Everybody is in this City. One either eats another human being or dies a very violent death and becomes “meat” for others. Out nameless narrator was born into such a reality and has internalized it to such a degree that even when he is in very different circumstances, in fact the opposite of circumstances in a utopian community, and even when he doesn’t have to kill people or eat them anymore — our poor guy never really believes it. He can’t imagine or understand that any other way of existence is possible. So he behaves exactly the way he would have in the City. Which eventually gets himself slaughtered.
In so many other “typical” or canonical utopian/dystopian novels the main character(s) actively seek a better society or the possibility thereof. If they actually get to the perfect society, it’s a utopian novel. In a dystopian novel the main character(s) usually get caught, get beaten up, tortured and brainwashed by the evil State. Either way the main character(s) are pretty much reasonable, relatable people. They’re the reader’s guides to their strange worlds. If somebody, by some magic, pulled Winston Smith out of the novel and placed him in real, actual Britain of 1984, he’d fit in and might actually do pretty well.
In Maso, however, the main character himself is different. The reader can see that this poor nameless guy really suffers. He has feelings: meat makes him happy (really happy); hunger, thirst, cold and pain make him sad (and these are a constant, unfortunately); he feels fear, real fear, deep terror, and unnerving uncertainty all the time. The reader can understand all this. The reader can even kind of relate to him.
But out main character differs from most other characters in most other utopian/dystopian novels in that he simply can’t help himself being a part of his dystopia. The author deliberately takes him to a much, much better place but look at what our narrator ends up doing: He just wants more meat. He can’t dream of a better society, even when he’s actually in one. He has lost the ability.
In the author’s mind, that’s what it really means to be born and raised in dystopia.
Harnícek was born in 1952. Czechoslovakia became a Communist country in 1948. So there you see the difference. George Orwell, or Eric Arthur Blair, hailed from a bourgeois English family, served in India, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and sparred with fellow-leftists over supporting the USSR. Yevgeny Zamyatin, the son of a Russian Orthodox priest and an engineer for the Imperial Russian Navy, saw the Bolshevik Revolution which he first embraced turn to ash. They saw the Old World, the world as they knew it, crumble apart, saw humanity turn for the worse. So in a way they knew both utopia and dystopia.
But Harnícek had no memory like theirs, no first-hand experience of a different, better world. All he had was his reality: Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, Soviet tanks in the capital city after Prague Spring (Harnícek was 16), and Charter 77. Harnícek signed this anti-government, pro-freedom civil movement manifesto. It meant a political and professional suicide at the time and he knew it. He was 25.
Harnícek now lives in Germany. He is retired, has had nothing to do with the literary world for a long time, and does not wish to either. So at least his life story seems to have a happy ending.
Harnícek has written a handful of other works in his life, but none of it measured up to Maso. The original edition (published in 1981) is 76 pages long. In this short fiction he has created what is probably one of the most horrifying dystopias that one can find in Western literature. A nightmare world where human beings don’t even know what hopes or dreams can mean; where people refuse to believe them and run back to hopelessness at their own volition. To end up being eaten.
And the scariest part is that the City seems to function as a society, since it continues to exist. After all, our nameless hero went back to the City, in spite of everything he went through. If only to be slaughtered. The fact that it somehow all makes sense in a terrible, twisted way says something about the darkest, most brutish, and perhaps the most inexplicable corner of human nature.
Previous self-congratulatory milestone posts:
1500, about the Hand of Glory legend
1000 (and one), about the Arabian Nights stories
500, merely a Spartan marking of the date
* With apt tragedy, Kirillov himself disappeared into the USSR’s “purging flames” and died in the gulag under unknown circumstances — possibly executed.
** Translation from Mass Culture in Soviet Russia.
† No promises!