We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Posted January 12, 2017on:
written in 1921
where I got it: purchased used
I’ve owned this little paperback for years, and I’ve always been intimidated by it. Because the introduction is 20 pages long? Because the story was considered so subversive that it couldn’t be published in Zamyatin’s native Russia until 1988, fifty years after the author’s death? Maybe. And maybe because I was nervous that what was a riotious dystopian political satire in 1922 wouldn’t hold up, that I’d be too far removed from what the story referenced to understand the satire.
I should never have been intimidated. The story is not subversive to my modern eyes, and the all-inclusive satire holds up very well, with Zamyatin going after everyone he possibly can in an unsubtle fashion – Christians, a helicopter-parenting government, Authoritarianism, Big Brother, and anyone who agrees tacitly with a majority without bothering to analyze what’s happening. I solved my problem with the introduction by leaving it until after I’d finished the novel. The “utopia” of We is reason taken to the nth degree, protection of the people by removal of all choice, a society built around the concept that humans can only be happy if when when all choice, all worryor concern of making a misstep, all need of something out of reach, all creativity, all freedom is taken from us. Citizens are referred to as numbers, not as people. This is a society madly in love with math, reason, and rationalism, and terrified by question marks, the unknown, and the imagination. Dissidents are publicly executed.
“When a man freedom equals zero, he commits no crime. That is clear. The only means of ridding man of crime is ridding him of freedom”
Not only is choice and freedom gone, but so is privacy. Homes and buildings are constructed of clear glass, the concierge in your apartment building reads your mail and registers your visitors, and privacy blinds may only be drawn if the proper paperwork is product with the partner you have registered for that day.
To you and I, this world sounds horrific. But our narrator, D-503, doesn’t know any better. To him, this is the best, and the only way to live. He’s the ultimate product of his society. He is the chief builder of the spaceship the Integral, a ship that will take the One State to the stars, sharing with the rest of the universe how easy it is to be happy and have a peaceful community. The chapters of the book are D-503’s journal entries, a journal that will travel with ship. He is writing to his unknown readers on a distant planet, to inferior persons who are still living in a world ruled by irrationality. By writing to people who aren’t familiar with his culture, Zamyatin uses that as a convenient method of infodumping. It’s more info, and less dump, as these are very short and pointy chapters. D-503 lets us know about his perfectly ordered life, where everything from how many minutes he spends sleeping to how many times he chews his food is decided for him, and to live any other way is patently absurd.
When D-503 meets an unusual woman named I-330, his life is turned upside down. I-330 meets with whoever she wants, whenever she wants. She smokes cigarettes, she drinks alcohol, she lies, she spends too much time at the local historical museum. How is that she hasn’t been arrested yet? She seduces D-503, and shows him how easy it is to get a doctor’s note for missing work if you go to the right doctor. When D-503 starts having dreams, feelings, and desires, he knows something is seriously wrong with him. He is diagnosed with a most dangerous disease: having a soul. After his diagnosis, D-503 has some concerning and confusing experiences, and since he is a perfect product of his society, he’s just not smart enough to see what I-330 has been up to all this time.
The list of what makes this book so fascinating is about ten pages long, but something simple that struck me was the language, and how it changes throughout the book. I have the translation by Mirra Ginsburg, and I feel she did a wonderful job. At the beginning, D-503 presents his ideas as bland facts. Everything is black or white, right or wrong, everything is so very clear to him, as clear as that 2 plus 2 equals 4. As the story progresses, as he begins to desire I-330, after he gets a damning diagnosis of having a soul, his words and thoughts transform into verbal artwork – metaphors that wax lyrical, sentences as ornamented as a crystal chandelier, dreamy descriptions right out of dreams. To D, this mode of thinking is horrific and signals mental illness. To his readers, it signals something very different.
Any of this sounding familiar? Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed were directly inspired by We. Echoes of We are easily found elsewhere – Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Harrison Bergeron, the movies Logan’s Run and Gattaca, Insurgent by Veronica Roth, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and so many more. That dystopian novel you loved? Chances are the author was inspired by someone who was inspired by Zamyatin.