We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Translated by Clarence Brown
First Published: 1924 (original)
First Published: 1993 (this translation)
Pages: 226 (Paperback)
Set in the twenty-sixth century A.D., Zamyatin’s masterpiece describes life in the regimented totalitarian society of OneState, ruled over by the all-powerful “Benefactor.” The inspiration for George Orwell’s 1984, We is the archetype of the modern dystopia, or anti-Utopia: a great prose poem detailing the fate that might befall us all if we surrender our individual selves to some collective dream of technology and fail in the vigilance that is the price of freedom.
Clarence Brown’s brilliant translation is based on the corrected text of the novel, first published in Russia in 1988 after more than sixty years’ suppression.
We is the earliest and least famous (at least in the UK) of the ‘big three’ 20th century dystopias; Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, and Huxley’s Brave New World. It is also the only one of them to be written by an author who actually lived in a Police State (two in fact: Tsarist Russia followed Communist Russia). And, to be honest, those are the main two reasons for reading it – its literary significance and its historical context. Take that away and it’s a very dated and rather hard to relate to bit of sci-fi that I would probably never have picked up, let alone stuck with to the end – with both of these things in mind, however, I found it utterly fascinating.
We tells the story of D-503, in fact it’s presented as an account written by D-503, the head architect on the first OneState rocket to be sent into space. It starts, several days prior to blast-off, with D-503 picking up his pen to write an account of OneState society for any ‘inferior life forms’ the rocket may encounter. However it quickly turns into a more personal diary chronicling D-503’s growing dissatisfaction with OneState as he falls in love with the mysterious I-330 and finds himself unwitting swept into the plans of an underground resistance group to try to topple the regime. If you’ve read 1984 (and I have, though a very long time ago) it’s impossible not to see the connections and to realise how much Zamyatin’s work must have influenced Orwell’s. Where 1984 had a strong cast of characters, however, Zamyatin’s seem strangely blank and completely unrelatable.
Part of this is, of course, due to the nature of the story. It’s a dystopia, society is different, and in OneState individuality is a disease. People are simply numbers, cogs in the machine of state. There is no real concept of ‘I’, but only ‘we’ and the narrator can’t ever quite break away from his conditioning. But also it’s a dystopia and in this case that means and ‘ideas over characters’ plot and try as he might, Zamyatin can’t make me find his narrator very interesting. I-330 is probably meant to be the standout character of the book, she’s strong, charismatic, and sexually promiscuous, but she always felt too much like a necessary ‘part of the plot’ for me to get a grip on her as a character. Much more compelling, for me, was O-90, D-503’s plump state assigned sex partner who’s hopelessly in love with him – why, however, I never quite worked out.
And then there’s the thing that made me really lose sympathy for the main character. Not his OneState ‘I am a cog in a machine and I like it’ socialisation, but the racism. As the black character is sympathetic I hope this is just another example of how OneState is a horrible horrible place – but I do struggle with a narrator that keeps describing his friend as having ‘african lips’ with ‘spittle flying from them’ every time he speaks or ‘moving like a gorilla’. I just… it’s not nice to read.
The plot too, it has to be said, isn’t the most compelling. It fluctuates between serious political concepts and actually quite comical B-movie black and white sci-fi. You can practically imagine the rocket scenes being done by dangling a toilet roll dressed up as a spaceship in front of a piece of card painted black with stars, and the sex scenes are just – well the comedy has to be deliberate. The narrator himself is also so naive and confused by events that the story itself feels confused in places and I wasn’t always sure what was actually going on – I’m still not sure exactly what was going on in some parts actually. It was a fascinating read, utterly fascinating, but not always quite as enjoyable a read as I was hoping for.
I’m glad I read it, but I won’t be reading it again. To be honest I found it more interesting for its historical and literary significance than its own merits and I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone I know as a casual read, unless I happened to know that they were interested in either Russian Communism or early 20th century science-fiction.