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We Paperback – August 1, 1993
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“[Zamyatin’s] intuitive grasp of the irrational side of totalitarianism—human sacrifice, cruelty as an end in itself—makes [We] superior to Huxley’s [Brave New World].”—George Orwell
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Russian
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One thousand years after the One State has conquered the world, the survivors live in a city of glass and steele, enclosed behind a giant Green Wall, and outside the wall is destruction from the Two-hundred Years War, an unknown, wild and forbidden place. The city is designed for mass surveillance of the citizens, and the Bureau of Guardians (secret police) watch everything. Logic controls society completely, and an individual’s behavior is based on formulas and equations created by the One State - thus ensuring security and happiness for all citizens. (Sound familiar to another novel?)
A man called D-503 (everyone is a number, no proper names) is a scientist heading the creation of the spacecraft Integral, which will allow the One State to invade and conquer the other planets. His lover, O-90, has been assigned to D-503, and they have Sexy-time on scheduled nights. O-90 cannot have children and this makes her deeply sad.
But one day D-503 meets another woman, I-330, and is attracted to her. I-330 smokes cigarettes, drinks alcohol, and flirts with D-503, and all of this is highly illegal. But D-503 becomes obsessed with the new woman, his strange dreams confuse him. I-330 reveals to him that a secret society is planning a revolt, and she wants D-503 to assist because of his his position while building the Integral spacecraft.
No more from me, I’d just be giving spoilers. But this short novel was excellent, and both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were obviously taken with it. Totalitarian government mixed with in-the-future Science Fiction - what’s not to love?
A brief overview: The central character, and narrator, is D-503. He is an engineer and the builder of the Integral, a spaceship by which One State plans to conquer other planets. Like all other "ciphers" in One State, D-503 is identified by a number, not a name. Daily life is organized according to principles of efficiency articulated by the American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (who many Bolsheviks and early Soviets thought of as a guru). So, D-503 conducts himself according to the Table of Hours, which regulates twenty-two of the hours of the day, leaving two hours of free time. D-503 spends some of his free time with O-90. With permission, they can close the blinds and have sex in privacy. Otherwise, everyone lives in all-glass buildings, in full view of one and all. Further, the secret police or Guardians are omnipresent. The action of the novel is triggered when D-503 encounters I-330, a minx with unusually white, sharp teeth who flouts many of the rules of One State. D-503 is critical of I-330 on social/political grounds, but at the same time he is captivated by her. And so begins a train of subversive conduct and a chain of events that threatens the regimented harmony of One State.
I read WE as part of my ongoing survey of prominent Russian literature. But it is even more prominent in the realm of dystopian science fiction. Ursula Le Guin called it "the best single work of science fiction yet written." To quote from the Foreword to this Modern Library edition by Bruce Sterling, WE "has whole sets of sci-fi themes and conceits that were entirely fresh when Zamyatin created them: hermetically sealed cities, synthetic food, unisex suits, Metropolis-like crowds of drones marching through cyclopean apartment blocks, whizzing, roaring trips in giant spaceships, mind control through brain surgery. They're clichés now, of course: but they were only reduced to clichés through decades of effort by lesser artists."
The prose is brisk, clipped, and pulsating. More than modern, it is futuristic. Supposedly, the novel is studded with allusions and symbols. Zamyatin renders "emotions in equations, relationships in geometry, and philosophy in calculus." Although I don't know Russian, I believe this translation by Natasha Randall captures superbly Zamyatin's unique style.
It so happens, however, that I don't take well to science fiction or dystopian fiction. While I recognize WE as brilliant, I didn't particularly enjoy it. As for its place in Russian literature, I see it as a very early prediction of the Bolshevik revolution evolving from dynamic and progressive political thought to hidebound dogma supporting a totalitarian regime.