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Book Review: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The original dystopian novel.


We

Penguin Classics, 1924, 225 pages



Set in the 26th century A.D., Yevgeny Zamyatin's masterpiece describes life under the regimented totalitarian society of OneState, ruled over by the all-powerful "Benefactor." Recognized as 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 60 years' suppression.




This classic of early science fiction was the prototype for nearly every dystopian novel written since. George Orwell identified We as his inspiration for 1984, and the similarities are obvious.

Yevgeny Zamyatin's "OneState" under its "Benefactor" is not as fully developed as Orwell's Oceania and Big Brother — Zamyatin wanted to represent ideas which were (obviously) allusions to the communist regime that he had to flee, but he didn't go as far as Orwell did in creating a society meant to be believable and similar to our own. Also, the prose (allowing for the translation from Russian) is often clunky, the dialog sometimes laughable, and the plot verges into the absurd. But it is an early work of science fiction and deserves its laurels for inspiring the better novels that came after it.

Besides the obvious totalitarian elements, one can also see Orwell's inspiration in the up-is-down, black-is-white logic of OneState, which holds annual elections so everyone can vote in perfect unanimity for the Benefactor and which manages to reify ideas into what Orwell would later call "thoughtcrimes."

In OneState, everyone lives in a glass apartment building. Society runs according to strict scientific algorithms, making everyone equal and everything fair. For example, human beings have been freed from lust and jealousy by the simple expedient of making everyone a public good — if you want to have sex with someone, you just put in a request for their number and at an appointed time they will show up to perform their duty.

There are some obvious problems with this scheme that even an all-powerful police state would have trouble controlling, but this book is more of a thought experiment than a carefully designed setting.

Zamyatin's tale of D-503, a scientist/drone whose previously unquestioned loyalty to OneState is suddenly shaken by a desire to get laid by someone sexier than his short, plain, assigned girlfriend O-90, is at heart a fairly typical story that even has a few pulp action scenes at the end. It is mostly notable for its historical place and who it inspired (not only George Orwell, but other science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov, of the generation who would have read it growing up).

It was interesting to read, but mostly for its historical interest. We is very much an artifact of its time, and Zamyatin's writing unfortunately fell flat for me.

Rating: 6/10






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Tags: books, reviews, science fiction
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