30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
A Clear Case of the Apprentice Surpassing his Master
, July 20, 2006
This review is from: We (Paperback)
This book was written in 1920 and immediately banned by the Soviet authorities. (This was four years before Lenin's death and the start of Stalin's ascent to power. The Trotskyite idea that the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union was a free socialist Utopia, which permitted freedom of thought and artistic expression, is a myth).
It is, of course, easy to see why the book fell foul of the Leninist regime. The Soviets might not have taken offence at a dystopian novel if it had been set in a reactionary capitalist society like the one featured in Jack London's "The Iron Heel". "We", however, is set several centuries in the future in a totalitarian state known as OneState. (The preferred rendition of the translator Clarence Brown). OneState is an immense city state, cut off from the outside world by a glass wall. It is ruled by an all-powerful dictator known as the Benefactor, with the aid of a secret police known as the Guardians. Citizens are known as "Numbers"; they do not have personal names but rather a series of numbers preceded by a letter (consonants for men, vowels for women). Thus the hero of the story is known as D-503 and the heroine I-330. Their lives are controlled by a Table of Hours which dictates what every Number should be doing at any given time; certain hours are for work, others for sleep, others for recreation. (The Table is based upon the theories of the American management expert Frederick Winslow Taylor, which suggests Zamyatin's satire may have been targeted at capitalism as well as Soviet Communism). All buildings are made of glass to allow the regime more easily to monitor the activities of their occupants. Political dissent and disobedience to orders are punishable by death.
The state ideology is a form of perverted rationalism. The state proclaims that it is run on rational, scientific principles; by obedience to these principles and to the dictates of the Benefactor, its people can obtain supreme happiness. Freedom is equated with misery and a lack of freedom with happiness. The Numbers are told that they are living in a perfect society and no further political change is necessary or desirable. The revolution which led to the creation of OneState is the Final Revolution. This may be a reference to the official Soviet doctrine that Socialism was a transitional phase which, at some unspecified date in the future, would be replaced by Communism, the final and perfect stage of mankind's political evolution.
The Benefactor, in his wisdom, has decided that, if there are inhabitants on other planets, they too should receive the benefit of his political philosophy, and so has decreed the construction of a spaceship named INTEGRAL (always spelt in capital letters) which will be used to spread the Gospel according to OneState throughout the cosmos. D-503 is the chief engineer on this project, and at first he is a loyal Number who unquestioningly accepts the benefits of OneState and the rule of the Benefactor. The novel charts the course of his disillusionment with the official state ideology after he falls in love with a rebellious young woman, I-330. She is a member of an underground dissident group, the Mephi, who are struggling to overthrow the system, and as the group achieve some successes and the façade of unity starts to crack, the regime is forced to take coercive measures, including an operation to remove the imagination, in order to retain control.
George Orwell was familiar with "We", and cited it as an influence on his own "1984", which in many ways parallels it. (There are also some similarities with the other great British dystopian novel, "Brave New World", although there is no evidence that Aldous Huxley knew Zamyatin's work). The Benefactor equates to Big Brother, D-503 to Winston Smith, I-330 to Julia. In some ways, Zamyatin's vision of the future is as chillingly prescient as Orwell's. One reviewer complains of "We" that "it is a bland description of an impossible world: Glass tenements, marching queues of citizens, copulation tickets, forced surgery, schoolchild indoctrination, assemblies, a single ruler, pre-decided elections, gas chambers, etc.". I would like to ask that reviewer exactly what is so impossible about Zamyatin's imagined world; in the course of the twentieth century all but one of those predictions came true somewhere in the world (and not only in totalitarian states). The one exception is copulation tickets; perhaps that is what the twenty-first century holds in store for us.
I do not, however, regard "We" as being in the same class as "1984". Orwell, both in that novel and more generally, was a master of clear, lucid prose. The language of "We" is anything but. Much of it is written in a disjointed, hallucinatory style, which often makes it difficult to follow. Unlike "1984" and "Brave New World", both of which were third-person narratives, "We" is told in the first person, being the text of a journal kept by D-503, although at times the narrative is closer to the "stream of consciousness" technique than to a series of journal entries. Some have described "We" as a prose poem, a description from which I would not dissent. This style of poetic prose, however, did not strike me as appropriate to a work of science-fiction or a novel of ideas dealing with mankind's future. If Orwell did learn from Zamyatin, this was a clear case of the apprentice surpassing his master.
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