book-reviews

We

by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Rating: ★★★

We is a book which is tremendously shaped by context. Written by a Russian author, though for years there would be no Russian publication of it, it is one of the earliest dystopian novels, an influence on Orwell and a response to the utopias put forward by Wells. The world is a city, the OneState, and everything runs with mathematical precision. The lives of the Numbers (people) are governed by a arithmetic morality and a strict Schedule (right down to the Sexual Hour). We follow the narrative of one Number as he becomes entwined in a seditious uprising against the OneState and its Benefactor.

The introduction to my edition (a new translation) focuses on how English Zamyatin was, but I found that the novel was very Russian, reminding me of nothing more than Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. In fact, if you were to take 1984 and Crime and Punishment and sort of mash them together, you'd get something not far from We.

That is in fact the main problem with the book; the protagonist, D-503, like Raskolnikov, is frankly insane and I find it very hard to understand his ravings or his actions except in the broader strokes which move the plot along. He explodes with the strangest emotions, stumbling about apparently without purpose and babbling what he narratively acknowledges as nonsense to anyone who will listen. Love and derilium were apparently quite close companions in revolutionary Russia.

The strength of the book, then, is not in the character of the protagonist or any of his cast, or in the detail of description, but in the themes. Zamyatin contends that a scientific utopia of calculated happiness is a dead world, and sets up in opposition a more primitive alternative. Quite bravely given his context, he also draws out that there can be no 'final revolution' after which the world will be perfect, just as there is no final number. The novel ends inconclusively, a revolution sweeping the city, but OneState having developed an imagination-removal procedure which might tip control back to it. This no doubt reflects Zamyatin presenting us with a choice - a scientific utopia, or a chaotic 'natural' life? The direction he urges is plain, but the semblence of neutrality there is good.

These ideas are interesting, but not dissimilar to those later put forward in Huxley's Brave New World, which has the added benefit of having a main character whose motives and manner make much more sense to an English reader. For its ideas, I would have given We another star, but to reflect the struggle that the main character makes following the novel, I deducted one. A recommendation is here, however, for anyone interested in dystopias like Brave New World or 1984.