“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.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
When one think of novels set in dystopian futures, titles such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and of course, George Orwell’s 1984 come to mind. However, almost of all these books owe themselves to We, a dystopian novel written by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin.
First published in 1924, We, along with Jack London’s The Iron Heel, is considered to be one of the first books to explore the futuristic dystopian genre.
We establishes many of the tropes that have since become staples of the genre, from a seemingly omnipotent but secretive government, to the twisted logic that Orwell went on to call Doublethink. Set one thousand years in the future, in a world dominated by a government called One State, the novel follows a character ‘named’ D-503, who works as a chief engineer on a spaceship called the INTEGRAL, which it is hoped will allow One Sate to take to the stars in order to bestow peace and order on any alien life forms that may be out there.
The world of One State is every bit as terrifying as that of Big Brother’s. Citizens live in glass houses and are constantly monitored by the secret police. People are given numbers rather than names, dreams are seen as signs of mental illness, and even sex and romance are forbidden except on specific days at allotted times. D begins the novel as a loyal citizen of One State and we follow his journey via entries he makes in his journal. A thread soon emerges in D-503’s life when he meets a beautiful young woman named I-330. She drinks, she smokes, and continuously subverts the rules and regulations of One State. Despite initially hating her for her disregard for One State, D soon becomes infatuated with the enigmatic woman and the two soon begin a love affair. However, the deeper D falls for I, the more his loyalty to One State begins to wane.
It may have been published long before the dystopian future genre became vogue, but the world painted in We is every bit as disturbing and terrifying as those found in 1984 and Brave New World. Reading the novel, you constantly have the feeling of dread that One State is ever present and watching. The book transpires via entries D makes in his journal, and he regards us, the reader, as an alien civilization that One Sate will bring order to via the INTEGRAL shuttle. It’s unsettling enough to imagine one society like One State or Big Brother, but the idea that such a society could take to the stars and spread through galaxies is quite another. We also serves as a satire, and as a warning, against the Soviet Russia and was prevented from being published in Zamyatin’s native country for over sixty years.
If I had one criticism of We, it’s that the narrative can feel quite loose and scattered though, given that it’s being written from the perspective of a character experiencing a serious crisis, I can appreciate this may well be intentional on the author’s part and does help create a feeling of anxiety in the reader that mirrors the feelings of D. I won’t spoil the ending but I personally found it to be more satisfying than I was expecting, though it still leaves plenty for the reader to ponder on once the last page is turned.
If you can’t get enough of books about dystopian futures, then you absolutely owe it to yourself to check out the novel that is arguably the father of them all. Books directly inspired by We include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, George Orwell’s 1984, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, to name but a few.
Added 14th September 2018