This novel has served as the inspiration for what has become, if not a genre, then at the very least a dominant sub-genre of science fiction. It is the first major dystopian novel, a precursor to George Orwell’s 1984, Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and its history, along with that of its author, eerily mimics some of the themes of those other books.
Written and completed in 1920, We was first published in English in 1924, then in Czech in 1927. It wouldn’t be published in Russian until 1952, some fifteen years after Zamyatin’s death. Even then, it was not published in Russia, but by the Chekhov Publishing House in New York. The edition I read for this review was translated by Mirra Ginsberg for publication in 1972, and has a wonderful introduction further outlining the major events in Zamyatin’s life.
However, it is not necessary to be intimately familiar with the totalitarian political structure of Stalin’s Russia to feel the full impact of We. Instead, the clarity of this book’s language and the amazing characterization and plotting carry the reader into a world both absurd and nightmarish, transcending what must have been the oppressive atmosphere in which it was written.
The narrator of this work is both numbered and lives at D-503, for in the world of We there are no names, only designations. He is the chief Builder of the One State’s most glorious project, the construction of a spaceship, the Integral. The work itself is a journal that is to be carried as cargo on the Integral, praising the efficiency, the rationality, and the happiness that life within the confines of the One State can bring to those worlds the Integral will someday visit.
The One State is overseen by the Benefactor, a deific figure portrayed with heavy hands, and a network of Guardians, who watch for anyone that might display the slightest irregular behavior. The One State exists within a glass dome, the rest of the planet supposedly rendered inhospitable during the Two Hundred Year War. Every building is made of this same glass, enabling any behavior not proscribed by the Table of Hours, the sacred text of the One State, to be easily seen and reported. Privacy is only allowed for sexual intercourse, and then only after applying for a pink coupon to be presented and validated in the front office of each housing complex.
As the journal progresses, D’s rigidly structured life grows in complexity as he meets I-330, a fiercely dominant woman who seduces him, first from his lover O-90, then from his beloved One State. While this crisis of conscience tears D apart, it also illustrates the problem facing the One State itself, that of imposing rationality upon humanity, when emotions and imagination so often lead to irrational behavior. Tension, paranoia, and passion build within D as he realizes that his seducer is part of a revolutionary society opposed to the One State. Yet even as he struggles with the desire to report her to the Benefactor, and weighs this against his own desire to join her in her revolution, he continues to believe that somehow the One State, and rationality, will prove to be his savior.
We is an exploration of the individual vs. the social order, a celebration of the importance of imagination, and ultimately, a warning regarding the dehumanizing consequences of imagination’s destruction. Zamyatin’s profound understanding of the human soul transcends what could have been a heavy, demagogic work. He celebrates the power of laughter, injecting a lightness into the text at the most unexpected points. I, pleasantly surprised at just how funny this work was, and at how well its science fiction aspects have withstood the changing times, certainly intend to read it again. Hopefully you, dear reader, will read it as well.