"If we live in a constant state of fear, can we remain human?"
This question, asked by a Russian diplomat before leaking information about Russian nuclear espionage to the Americans, runs throughout In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The novel tells the story of a mathematician imprisoned under Stalin who is forced to develop voice recognition technology to identify the source of the leak.
Solzhenitsyn himself was a prisoner in one of the Sharaskas, R&D labs within the gulag system that put scientists and engineers to work on Russian military and espionage technologies. Others imprisoned under this system included electronic music pioneer Theremin, the aircraft designer Tupolev, and the rocket scientist Korolev.
Hoping to publish in Russia, Solzhenitsyn adjusted the novel substantially, changing the leak from information about nuclear espionage to information about a medical invention. When it wasn't published in Russia, Solzhenitsyn published the modified version with Harper Collins in 1968. Harper Collins published a full, "uncensored" version in 2009, the version our book club will read. Robert Kaiser has published an excellent review of this new edition in the Washington Post.