Beyond Science Fiction: Nature in the City and Our Ethical Future

by Liam Heneghan

Discussions of the twenty-first century remain primarily about the future. If dystopian science fiction serves as our guide, then it is clear that the future is already here. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic Russian science fiction novel We, published in 1921, the novel that inspired George Orwell’s 1984, our narrator, the engineer D-503, describes a futuristic world, One State, that hums with mathematical precision. It is one where, supposedly at least, people have nothing to conceal from one another. They live surrounded by transparent walls through which the “Guardians” can observe them. They compliantly surveil each other. This is a domain without privacy, without freedom, and also, not coincidentally, without nature.

For all of that, the earth as D-503 describes it is a beautiful shining thing. This beautiful shining earth is, however, largely confined beyond yet another translucent wall, the Great Wall, that separates One State from the world of nature beyond. Perhaps it is just as well: the atavisms of nature no longer appeal in this future. D-503 reports that he is “unable to find anything beautiful in flowers, or in anything else that belongs to the lower kingdom which now exists only beyond the Great Wall. Only rational and useful things are beautiful: machines, boots, formulae, food etc.” D-503 even regrets the hairiness of his hands! That being said, D-503, when we meet him, is troubled by unbidden thought. Irrational numbers haunt him. He is roused, though only slightly, from his conformist slumbers by the unruly behavior of the women in his life, and becomes aware of a plot to tear down the Great Wall reintegrating the life outside the wall with the moribund one within. Though ultimately, and involuntarily, he betrayed that revolution, parts of the wall come down as the story ends. Birds fly into One State.

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