We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is widely recognized as a direct influence on George Orwell when composing his dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, and there are certainly strong signs of influence in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as well. Zamyatin edited Russian translations of works of Jack London and H.G. Wells, and We can be viewed as a reaction against the optimistic scientific socialist utopias promoted by Wells. (Note: Aldous Huxley claimed no influence from We, stating that he was also opposed to the utopian ideals of H.G. Wells.)
How does the book read now, almost 100 years after its first English publication? Would it not be so dated as to be unreadable?
One must consider all the cataclysmic events that have happened since We was written: World War II, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War between the US and the USSR, the fall of the Soviet Union, the economic rise of Japan and more recently China (where communism still exists but has been greatly tempered by the forge of capitalism) and the increasing globalization of the world’s economies — not to mention the innumerable list of technological inventions, not least of which are computers and the internet.
It’s hard to read We without all the baggage that readers are equipped with as members of today’s world, including all the dystopian SF books and films that have come since then. Even now some of the most popular YA books include Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy and Veronica Roth’s DIVERGENT series. But when Zamyatin published We back in 1924, there weren’t many earlier dystopian works other than Jack London’s The Iron Heel (published in 1907).
We itself is a very powerful exploration of a totalitarian society gone mad, where happiness is defined as the absence of free will, and emotions are considered mental illness. All individuals only have letters and numbers to distinguish them, society is completely regimented with mathematical precision by the government (headed by the iron-fisted Well-Doer), and public executions of any aberrant Numbers are carried out by the Well-Doer under the Benefactor’s Machine. Nature is suppressed outside a Wall that encloses a perfectly organized geometrical glass city where citizens live like clockwork, regimented by the Tables of Hours down to their waking, working, exercise, eating, and even copulation. The story revolves around D-503, builder of the Integral spaceship, which is intended to go forth and subject other planets to the benign dictatorship of the One Ship. He gets involved with a dissident temptress named I-330, who drags him unwillingly into a plot to overthrow and destroy the United State (referred to as the One State in some translations).
The storyline now seems fairly familiar to modern readers, and Zamyatin’s writing, although beautifully poetic and very impressionistic, was also for that same reason often incoherent and confusing. Much time is spent describing the inner mental turmoil of D-503 as he struggles with the conflicting imperatives of his perfect geometric existence and love of mathematics and the wild, illogical, passionate, and manipulative I-330. There is so much soul-searching and internal debate that the story itself really takes a back seat to the battle seething in D-503’s mind.
In the final analysis, although We succeeds marvelously in criticizing the absurdity of scientific utopias and the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism, in many ways it fails as a conventional narrative. For that reason, it may not have the same towering stature as a dystopian masterpiece in Western popular culture that Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World have, though it fully deserves it.
We, written by a disillusioned, imprisoned, and exiled Russian dissident, is the dystopian novel kids should be reading in high school. I recommend Tantor Audio’s edition which is read by one of my favorite narrators, Grover Gardner.