Touted as the inspiration for the dystopian genre, and in particular for Zamyatin’s We, this short story had my expectations running high. It turned out to be very simplistic, with little to think about. But perhaps because of this we can consider this short story to be one of the earliest precursors of the genre: the barebones structure upon which other authors improved the bleak urbanist hell dystopia that many of us so love to hate.
In a city, inhabitants wake up one day to posters declaring that everyone would be subject to evaluation, to determine whether their life is useful. Those who fail the test will have 24 hours to kill themselves or face an execution. People are understandably distraught, but they follow the orders. That is, until the supreme leader, Ak, disappears. As discipline lapses, people whose lives would be considered useless are beginning to flaunt the rules, with no consequences. When Ak comes back, he declares that the purge is over, everyone can live their lives, and instead of determining whether they are useful, the authorities will congratulate everyone for surviving and collect their stories of life. Shortly thereafter, however, Ak changes his mind again, declares that all should have been executed, and disappears forever. His orders are never followed.
By modern standards, this is not even a story, but a worldbuilding exercise. There are no characters (Ak is the only one resembling a character, but he is more of a force of nature or god), no tension and no resolution. Just a description of a seemingly ordinary event over a short period of time. Dystopian stories that followed were usually defined by their sharp focus on a single character who suffers an inner conflict regarding his loyalty to the regime, and usually decides or is forced back into the mainstream, the mundane reality of his life. There is no such character here. This makes the short story both eminently readable (and at times even funny, thanks to the author’s witty observations of human nature), but also offers nothing that would be mentally stimulating for the reader.
Still, one can detect the beginnings of dystopian literature here. It has a faceless, capricious government. Its people are conditioned to a degree where they willingly go to their slaughter if the government declares so. And there is a distinct group of people who actually support the government policies, as they think of themselves as deserving to live. Finally, the ending state of the world is the same as in the beginning; perhaps a little too optimistic compared to other dystopian literature, but at least it approximates the beginning. If one tried to overthink the story, as I did to entertain myself beyond the twenty minutes it took me to read, one may draw parallels between Ak and the deteriorating mental health of Lenin, and to find the depiction of some of the “deserving” people pushing for the return of the purge to be uncomfortably close to even today’s reality.
All in all, The Tale of Ak and Humanity is an entertaining exercise in worldbuilding. You can read the entire story in 20 minutes, while you are waiting for a bus or riding it to work. Alex Shvartsman, the translator, helps by making the English text flow very smoothly. I don’t know whether the original is so subtly funny, but the English translation is a pleasure to read. Still, the story will not challenge you or stay with you for longer than a few hours. If you are interested in the beginnings of the dystopian genre, investing twenty minutes into this short story may be worth it, but otherwise this is one of a vast majority of century-old works that didn’t age too well.