Zamyatin finished this novel, in Russian, in 1921. It was suppressed in Russia for a long time, only being published there in 1988. Meanwhile, it was published in English in 1924. I read this Penguin Classics edition with the really awesome cover. The cover is from Painting of Futuristic Buildings and City by Anton Brzezinski. There is another edition from Penguin Classics that’s cover is Georgii Petrusov’s Caricature of Aleksander Rodchenko, but I find that artwork icky and disturbing and I love the colors and vision of the copy I have.
We takes place in the 26th Century – which is largely why it is considered a science fiction novel, I think. To be honest, I feel like most people place dystopian novels in science fiction because they just do not know where else to put them. While this takes place in the future, it does not contain any truly science fiction elements. I read this novel for two reasons: (1.) I am plodding through a stack of Russian literature; (2.) I am reading all the dystopian literature available.
This book is not for everyone – I can see how any variety of readers would become frustrated or bored by the novel. Also, if you had no fun reading Brave New World or 1984, then you will probably dislike We as well. However, it should be noted that We was actually published prior to either of those novels. Orwell openly admits that he was “inspired” by We, Vonnegut admits stealing some of the ideas in it, and Huxley (Brave New World) has been accused of plagiarism from many novels including We.
The narrative is written in the form of diary entries by D-503, there are 40 entries in total. Through the character’s diary, we learn much about the form of society in the 26th Century. D-503 lives in a place called OneState. OneState is the totalitarian society governed by the Benefactor and his Guardians. The entire urban society is constructed out of a type of clear glass – which allows the Guardians to police and spy on all of the citizens, even in their private apartments. The structure of society is regulated by the Table of Hours, which details what activity each citizen should be doing at what specific time. Naturally, throughout the book we see that citizens work for the sake of OneState because it is their duty and responsibility – they do not work for personal accomplishment or personal finance. Work tends to be the focus around which the lives of the citizens are built.
Except for Sex Day. We are told that after the 200-Years War, society split into factions. OneState developed while hunger was being eradicated and after that, the Lex sexualis was promulgated. In OneState, any citizen has the right of access to any other citizen as a sexual product. This plays somewhat of a large role in the book because on Sex Day, for an hour the couple is allowed to drop blinds in their apartment, thus being able to hide from the authorities for the time. I find it vaguely significant that in all of the major dystopian novels, sex plays such an important role. One might think it would be food, education, technology, etc. But it’s usually sex. Anyway, this control of sex in dystopian novels has the effect of removing crime and disorder from the society (no more jealousy or rape) and it also micro-manages the births and generations of new citizens.
All the citizens of OneState are given a letter-hyphen-number as their “name.” They are not called “citizens,” but rather are referred to as Numbers.
D-503 is a mathematician and a philosopher of mathematics. He understands numbers and formulae quickly and on a deeper level than most of his fellows. He has been put in charge of building OneState’s latest project: the INTEGRAL. This machine is something like a spacecraft, it’s purpose is to spread the values and commands of OneState to all other nations/planets. Of course, at the start of the novel, D-503 is pleased with this work and spends his day dutifully carrying out his assigned task. D-503 encounters the revolutionary and disobedient I-303. He falls in love with this woman. D-503 begins to have dreams, he loses his focus on purely rational thinking and logical explanations, and he begins to be an accomplice to her deviations.
I-303 takes D-503 out from OneState. OneState is surrounded by the Green Wall, which separates OneState from the remainder of the planet. There, D-503 realizes that there are humans living outside of the boundaries and forces of OneState and that there are many Numbers who wish to rebel against OneState and rejoin the rest of humanity. D-503 blames his law-breaking on the fact that he is ill. Having dreams and ruminating on love and drinking alcohol are all symptoms of his having developed a soul. Throughout the novel, D-503 grapples with what this means. Late in the novel, OneState makes its citizens undergo the Operation (something like a lobotomy) which removes people’s imaginations. By doing this, the effort is to squash any notions of revolution or hope.
There are two main questions that move throughout the novel in order to answer the ultimate problematic presented here. The first is what it means to be We or I. Some of this shows through in terms of the “we” between D-503 and I-303 versus the “we” between D-503 and the whole revolutionary group. D-503 frequently latches on to the concept of “we” and wonders how his allegiances have shifted and what it is that constitutes the “we” anyway. The second main question deals with the concept of revolution. Some of this is historically relevant to the Russian Revolution, but the point is the same: one must think that either there can be a last/final revolution, or there is no limit to revolutions possible. By forming another revolution, I-303 shows D-503 that it is always possible to overcome the authority of the State. The State tends to dupe its citizens into thinking that the revolution that brought it into existence is the last/final revolution, so that it can secure itself from any uprisings.
The overarching problematic of the novel is the comparison and contrast of the idea that happiness = freedom or the exact opposite.
I am giving this novel four stars because it is the genesis of 1984, Brave New World, etc. I like the themes and concepts that Zamyatin plays with here and I think it is definitely a book one should read and then re-read. However, I withhold a star because some of the writing itself is tedious. The character D-503 tends to be a bit whiny and babbles a bit more than he should. There are some sections where I lost track of the story and what D-503 was even trying to get across. The novel uses plenty of the technique of not finishing sentences except for a series of ellipses. This is okay, but after awhile, a little grating on the nerves. Anyway, I recommend this one for the smart people, the fans of Russia, and the dystopian-lovers.