Stopping the Metronome, Subverting World: Time in the Dystopian Fictions of We and “The Comet” by Josephine Koch

Stopping the Metronome, Subverting World: Time in the Dystopian Fictions of We and “The Comet”

Josephine Koch

“Inside each of us Numbers,” writes D-503, “there is an invisible metronome ticking away quietly, and we never have to glance at a clock to know the exact time within five minutes” (Zamyatin 113). However, as D-503 becomes increasingly seduced by the allure of I-330, gazing into her eyes with “an ecstatic (and probably stupid) smile on [his] face,” he realizes with fright that “now my metronome had stopped” (113). Why is it so important that each Number has an invisible metronome? And why does D-503’s stop as he finds himself subverting the authority of OneState through his interactions with I-330? Time itself seems to be something to be standardized and controlled by the state, something fundamental to the construction of world itself. What is it about time that is so foundational to the construction of systems of power and authority that dominate dystopian fiction? Close readings of both Zamyatin’s We and Dubois’ “The Comet” unveil conceptions of world that are inherently linked to time through formulations of ideas of “progress,” linearity, and historical narrative. In We, the tyrannical absolutism of time is rooted in conceptions of time as determinist and linear. In “The Comet,” time — specifically as inscribed within historical record and delineated by narrative — is likewise embedded within the very foundations of world and the power structures that uphold it. In both works, disruptions of world therefore require a radical upending of the paradigm of time.

In Zamyatin’s seminal novel We, the world of OneState relies upon a historical determinist, teleological conception of progress, an idea which is itself predicated on the perceived linearity of time. OneState clearly sees itself as the perfect and logical end point to the long march of history, more “civilized” and “evolved” than the inferior “primitives” who came before. For example, D-503 is constantly agonizing over the hairiness of his hands, referring to them as “shaggy paws” that “are a holdover from the savage era” (Zamyatin 20). Similarly, the Mephi are described as naked and hairy, occupying the savage wilderness across the Green Wall (133). This dichotomy between the primitive and the modern/advanced is rooted in a construction of a paradigm of time that progresses linearly, moving resolutely and inevitably in a straightforward line from the dark primordial wilderness to the logical endpoint of the mathematical perfection of OneState. As D-503 puts it, “the line of OneState is a straight line” (2).

OneState as a world — a system of values and rules that govern a society — does not only trumpet a vision of time that progresses linearly, but also ascribes moral value to the progression of time. As D-503 puts it early on in his log, “all human history, as far back as we know it, is the history of moving from nomadic life to a more settled way of life. So doesn’t it follow that the most settled form of life (ours) is by the same token the most perfect form of life (ours)?” (9-10). Of course, D-503’s logic is flawed because he fallaciously assumes that moral development is a factor of the passage of time: to D-503, settled ways of life developed after nomadic lifestyles and must therefore be superior. “We” came after “Them,” and so “we” must therefore be the civilized and “they” the savages. Progressions of time become tied up in ideas of “progress” as a moral concept, and OneState’s construction of time as linear therefore implies a parallel construction of morality as linearly progressing between the poles of “savage/primitive” and “civilized/advanced.” 

However, the novel itself (perhaps unwittingly) undermines its own tidy construction of moral and civilizational progress as running parallel with linear time. Although OneState claims to have advanced beyond the vestiges of “primitive” societies, D-503’s log constantly draws comparisons between OneState and these earlier societies. During the Day of Unanimity, D-503 describes the Numbers to be walking “just like the warriors you see on Assyrian monuments” (107). Even more strikingly, despite ridiculing the “ancients” and “their irrational, unknown God” (39), D-503’s logs contain repeated references to “the old religions,” which he frequently compares to elements of OneState practice. For D-503, the execution ceremony at Cube Square contained “something of the old religions, something cleansing, like storm and thunder” (42). In the same way, R describes OneState’s imposition of “happiness without freedom” (53) as a return to the biblical utopia of Eden: “Paradise was back. And we’re simple and innocent again, like Adam and Eve” (53). In R’s telling, the beauty of OneState is not defined in terms of its historical progress, but rather its return to the idyllic primordial past preserved in religious myth. These frequent religious allusions and references to ancient societies challenge the simplistic idea that there is a clear distinction between “before” and “after,” that progress is unending and linear, that time marches steadily onwards without ever looking back.

Furthermore, the conception of time as linear is subverted by the very structure of the novel itself. D-503 describes the log as a way of writing to his ancestors, saying that “you will understand how hard it is for me to write, harder than for any other writer in the whole extent to human history: They wrote for their contemporaries, others wrote for posterity, but nobody ever wrote for their ancestors” (20). The very act of writing the log for his ancestors — for those who came before (in this case, literally modern readers like us) — is a radical subversion of OneState’s insistence on the linearity of time and human progress. When D-503 later knocks his log to the ground, causing the pages to scatter, he writes that “it wouldn’t matter even if I did put them back in order, because there’s no real order” (114). Time, D-503 implies, cannot be neatly ordered though tidy historical records and narrativizations. While OneState construes time as orderly and logical — something to be tightly controlled, as with the timetables — the form of D-503’s log betrays this paradigm and instead portrays time as something fundamentally confused and orderless. This challenging of the orthodoxy of time as linear and determinist becomes a means of subverting the authority of OneState.

Just as world in We is associated with a distorted conception of time, the world of the “The Comet,” as well as the systems of power that govern it, are rooted in twisted logics of time, specifically of records and narrativizations of time. This act of recording and narrativizing time (one cannot happen without the other) is the practice of history — humanity’s attempt at rendering time legible, the human act of trying to represent (or misrepresent) and make sense of the passage of time. As Walter Benjamin puts it in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’” While the passage of time can perhaps be construed as objective and absolute (although Einstein’s theory of relativity would challenge even this), history — the human attempt to record and remember and make sense of time — can never capture time “the way it really was.” Instead, time is narrativized and inevitably misrepresented in its process of representation. Worlds are built upon these narratives and misrepresentations of time. 

When Jim is forced down into the bowels of the bank to recover the lost records, he is searching for a representation of history, of the human attempt to capture time, and to harness and narrativize it. But the presence of the bank records is also an indication of the ways in which the process of making time legible is also the process of deciding who gets to be remembered, and who is excluded. What moments in time get emphasized, and which are erased and obscured? As Saidiya Hartman writes in her close reading of “The Comet,” “The crypt harbors the secrets, the disavowed knowledge and missing volumes on which the great financial edifice rests, the same history that has relegated Jim to the bowels of the earth.” The bank records tell a shameful history that some would prefer to keep hidden — a history that consists of the “disavowed knowledge and missing volumes” that the world with its financial institutions and conceptions of modernity is built upon. The presence of the records raises important questions about time and history as humanity’s narrative of it. What do we find worth recording? How does our act of recording time distort it? And which shameful records of our history — of written time — would we rather remain buried? An interrogation of these questions reveals the extent to which distortions of time produce narratives of history that serve as the very foundation for world itself. The records themselves are also a symbol of the way in which history — the practice of recording time — has written Black people out of time and reduced Black bodies to little more than objects of commercial gain. Just as in We, dethroning world therefore requires a radical upending of how we make sense of and go about recording time. 

While in We this subversion came in the form of challenging the determinist linearity of time, in “The Comet,” DuBois links the comet’s dramatic upheaval of the established world order with an abrupt end in the human practice of narrativizing time. Among the first things Jim sees when he emerges from the darkness into the reordered world is the dead newsboy with the “last edition” of the newspaper in his hand (DuBois 55). What better symbol of the human endeavor to record and define time than the newspaper? What then does it mean for this to be the “last edition?” What possibilities does this open up for new ways of conceiving of and narrativizing time? Whose stories can now finally be told? It is only by radically reorganizing time that the old world can be upended, and new possibilities can be born. Indeed, when Jim and Julia begin to recognize the possibility of building a new world order out of the ashes of the old world, they are described as having been taken out of time. Julia is “primal woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life,” and Jim becomes “Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be” (60). These grandiose descriptors carry with them an air of timelessness, or the quality of existing outside of recorded history, like primordial deities who have superseded the bounds of time. Reconstructing world entails stepping outside of the bounds of time and trailblazing new ways of developing narrative retellings of time. 

Dubois, like Zamyatin, goes on to directly link this upending of time and historical narrative with the reconfiguration of world and the power structures that define it. As Jim and Julia become aware of their new position at the origin point of a world made new, their transformation is described in terms of the majesty of the distant past. Standing at the brink of a new future, Jim becomes a figure derived from ancient mythologies and storied early civilizations, emerging from his shackles with “the lone majesty of kings long dead,” “as though some mighty Pharaoh lived again, or curled Assyrian lord” (60). The power structure has been radically upended: Jim, once a man “few ever noticed … save in a way that stung” (54), has become a “mighty Pharaoh.” In parallel to this reconfiguration of power structures is the subversion of dominant conceptions of time: rather than progressing linearly, it is folded in on itself. Jim, the man of the future, is also a receptacle for the “majesty of kings long dead.” Upending world therefore entails the upending of time as well as the restructuring of power dynamics. 

As was the case in We, if the continuity of time can be seen as inherently bound up in the perpetuation of the system of world, then a rupture in time could be indicative of a parallel upheaval of world. It is only after Jim is trapped underground for “what seemed endless hours” that he remerges to find a world that has been radically altered (55). Jim’s journey to the bowels under the bank serves as a stark dividing line between the world “before” the comet and the world “after.” This division is itself marked by the warping of time, which becomes a relative experience rather than an absolute truth. As Jim begins to realize that the old world is dead, he is continually drawing attention to the way in which time has been riven by the destruction of world. “Yesterday,” he thinks to himself as he eats food from an upscale restaurant, “they would not have served me” (56). When he encounters Julia, he notes that “yesterday… she would scarcely have looked at him twice” (56). The repetition of “yesterday …” emphasizes the dramatic nature of the rupture of world, of the division of time into “before” and “after,” “yesterday” and “today.” On the roof of the Metropolitan Tower, as Jim and Julia begin to see each other as the possible progenitors of a new race of human beings in a new order of world, Julia laments “how foolish our human distinctions seem—now” (59). Here, the em dash followed by the addendum of “now” emphasizes (visually as well as verbally) the dramatic rupture of time — the break between “then” and “now.”

This notion of time as radically disrupted rather than gradually progressing is vital in the context of DuBois’ political and social advocacy. Time, either in radical disruption or gradual continuity, has implications for how world and systems of power and injustice can be changed or perpetuated. Unlike his contemporary, Booker T. Washington, who advocated for gradual change within the confines of existing systems (Washington), DuBois believed that radical changes — radical restructurings of world — would be needed in order to finally put an end to the systemic subjugation of Black people in the post-Civil War United States (Halberstam). Only at the end of the world, only when there was a clear division between “yesterday” and “today,” “then” and “now,” would there be the possibility of equality. For DuBois, it is only the potential for dramatic breaks in time that allows us to even begin to conceive of a new world order. 

Collectively examined, We and “The Comet” shed light upon the crucial role of time within dystopian literature. In both cases, “world” is predicated on distortions of time: the insistence upon time as determinist and linear in We, and the twisting of time through its recording and narrativization in “The Comet.” And in both cases, challenges to the dominant world order require subversions of these hegemonic conceptions of time. Time, something we often conceive of as the archetype of the objective and the absolute, is the last thing that must be upended in order to radically rethink worlds that believe themselves to be objective and absolute. 

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” E-book, Simon Fraser University.

DuBois, W. E. B. “The Comet.” Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920, pp. 253-273.

Halberstam, Jack. Lecture given at Columbia University. World’s End: Dystopian Fiction and Film. 22 Jan. 2024. 

Hartman, Saidiya. “The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance.” Bomb, Summer 2020 Issue, 5 June 2020,

Washington, Booker T. “Atlanta Compromise.” Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition. 18 Sept. 1895. Atlanta, GA. Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Translated by Clarence Brown, Penguin Random House, 1993.

Authors Bio

Josephine Koch (she/her) is a junior from Michigan majoring in English and Human Rights. Besides reading and stressing out about the papers she has to write, she enjoys going on long walks, exploring the city, and having excessively long conversations about the last movie she watched.