Updated on January 5, 2018
56. ‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin
By sheer coincidence, I bought We a few weeks before my first copy of The Happy Reader magazine arrived in the post – an edition packed with essays about We! That bumped this already intriguing book up my reading list. It is described as an iconic dystopian novel and the inspiration for George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
We is narrated by D-503, a mathematician working on a rocket in 26th-century OneState. OneState is ruled by the Benefactor; its citizens are known as ‘numbers’ and they live in glass houses so that everybody can see and be seen at all times. Happiness has been distilled to a mathematical formula, embodied by the rigid structure of the Table of Hours, which schedules in work, sleep, walking and even sex. Unpredictable Nature has been shut off behind the Glass Wall, and D-503’s rocket ultimately aims to carry the perfection of OneState to distant planets. The story is a collection of D-503’s diary entries, which he has started writing in order to put them on the rocket so otherworldly societies can learn about the glory of OneState from someone on the inside. However, D-503 is about to come up against some quite monumental struggles with OneState and the idea of happiness.
I absolutely love the world Zamyatin has created in We. He wrote the book in 1921, but it was suppressed by the Soviet Union and he had to smuggle it out of the country and publish it abroad, in New York. It wasn’t until the late 80s that it was finally published in Russia. That’s a pretty exciting publication history, and it’s not surprising given the clear criticism Zamyatin is making of dictatorships. There are great dollops of dystopia here, from the glass city to the pink ‘sex tickets’ to the grand event of the execution ceremony; if you want a fully realised world with plenty of horrible twists, We certainly delivers.
The writing style sets this book apart from other dystopias I’ve read. I would say We is more like poetry than prose; reading it is like looking at a Picasso painting. D-503 notices fragments, images, and he throws them all together into a kind of kaleidoscope of impressions. You don’t tend to see a whole person but rather a collection of body parts: D’s friend R-13 is known for his thick, spitting lips; his girlfriend, O-90, is a collection of circles; and his love interest, I-330, is all sharp edges and straight lines. The characters might be referred to as ‘numbers’, but it’s the first letters of their names that more clearly define them. At times the writing can be a little difficult to read, the actual events a little opaque, but I’m sure that’s deliberate. After all, D-503 is an unreliable narrator – his entire worldview is collapsing around his ears, distorted by passion and love – so it’s only natural that everything should seem fragmented and strange.
Maths is a major theme in this novel. Indeed, one of D-503’s formative memories is learning about the square root of -1 (an imaginary number) and being thrown into turmoil by it because it seems to ruin an otherwise perfect system. This encapsulates D’s entire struggle in We: he starts out wanting to be a mathematically pure and ordered member of society, but even a tiny speck of dirt in the oil (the beginnings of love, the ability to imagine) can throw everything off balance. He is faced with the ultimate dilemma of any dystopian citizen, whether to choose individuality or conformity, and in so doing, to decide what ‘being human’ really is.
We is a fascinating read, especially if you like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World. There are elements of both these books in We (Orwell acknowledges his debt to Zamyatin; Huxley denies having been influenced by him), and it’s wonderful to read someone who was exploring these ideas earlier than the more well-known writers in the genre. I highly recommend this book if you enjoy political dystopias, and I also recommend reading the latest issue of The Happy Reader alongside it (there are essays in there about Soviet uniforms, propaganda poetry and modern-day Russian prison camps).
“It is for you to place the beneficial yoke of reason round the necks of the unknown beings who inhabit other planets—still living, as it may be, in the primitive state known as freedom.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!