on January 10, 2007
Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) wrote "We" in 1920, in an URSS that was just beginning to show its true nature. He was able to observe at first hand the consequences of the expansion of the State and the Party, and the corresponding erosion of the value of the individual. The author called "We" his "most jesting and most serious work", and I think the reader will be able to appreciate both aspects of this peculiar book.
This novel takes place in the future, where the One State is ruled by the great Benefactor, and separated from the rest of the world by a Great Wall, that doesn't allow the outside world to "contaminate" it. The citizens of the One State aren't persons but merely numbers. They have almost no privacy, due to the fact that most things are made of a material similar to glass but much more resistant. In any case that isn't a problem, because as everybody does the same things at the same time, nobody has much to hide.
The One State begins to build a spaceship, the "Integral", that will be used to conquer other worlds and show them to be happy, in the way the citizens of the One State are happy. But how exactly are they happy?. Well, they have a rational happiness that can be mathematically proved. To mantain that happiness, they must always follow some rules. For example, there is no place for spontaneity in the One State. Imagination is considered a disease, and all art and poetry must be at the service of the State. The function of poetry is clear: "Today, poetry is no longer the idle, impudent whistling of a nightingale; poetry is civic service, poetry is useful".
As if that weren't enough, almost all activities are organized according to the Table of Hours: "Every morning, with six-wheeled precision, at the same hour and the same moment, we -millions of us- get up as one. At the same hour, in million-headed unison, we start work; and in million-headed unison we end it. And, fused into a single million-handed body, at the same second, designated by the Table, we lift our spoons to our mouths."
That main character in "We" is D-503, an important mathematician who is also a faithful follower of the great Benefactor, and a key participant in the building of the "Integral". He starts to write a journal, to allow other less fortunate societies to learn from the way things are done in the One State. This novel is that journal...
D-503 believes, at the beginning of this book, that the state of things in the One State is wonderful, and considers himself fortunate for being able to live in such enlightened times, where "'everyone' and 'I' are a single 'We'". But the unexpected happens when he starts to "fall in love" (an alien concept) with a number that has strange ideas, I-330. She makes D-503 start to question everything he had until then given for granted, and due to her he starts to develop a dangerous illness: a soul. As a consequence of that, D-503 cannot feel anymore as part of the whole, of "We", he cannot be merely a part of the whole...
D-503's inner turmoil is shown to us throughout the pages of his journal, and it is rather heartbreaking how much he suffers when he can't return to his previous state of certitude. If at the beginning of the story he was consistently logical, and used a lot of mathematical metaphores, as chapters go by the reader begins to notice a certain incoherence. That inconsistency probably has to do with the fact that D-503 no longer understands himself, because he has been deprived of certitudes that he considered essential in defining himself ("I have long ceased to understand who 'They' are, who are 'We' "). Before, he didn't exist as anything else that as a part of the State. After I-330's pernicious influence, he begins to suspect that things might not be so simple.
There are many themes present in "We", for example love, obsession, betrayal, freedom, the purpose of art and poetry, different kinds of revolutions, perfection, chaos... I haven't told you about many other interesting things I deem worth commenting about this book, but I think you will take greater advantage if you read "We" by yourself.
Zamyatin's book is a good science-fiction novel AND a dystopia. One of the many meaning of dystopia is a work that describes a state of things that is possible but not ideal. Its value lays, in my opinion, not in the likelihood that what it tells us will eventually happen, but rather in the fact that by deforming or satirizing reality it allows the reader to see it from another perspective. From my point of view, this novel is a classic, and has the distinct advantage of being both entertaining and easy to read. If you can, read it soon!!. I highly recommend it :)
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is one of a number of early 20th century speculations about the impact of the emerging modern world on the human condition.
Wright’s Islandia is one, as is Wells’s The Sleeper Wakes, which seems the best bet for the immediate precursor of We, written ten years later.
As in The Sleeper Wakes, Zamyatin depicts a regimented, urban society, cut off from nature and personal freedom. Unlike Wells’s novella, which is an ad absurdum extension of capitalist economics, We is based on rational thought, specifically mathematics. The story is very familiar, for in all of its most important elements it is repeated in 1984.
Orwell explicitly acknowledged We as one of his major sources. Aldous Huxley always claimed that he had not read We before he wrote Brave New World, but Orwell never believed him, and Huxley’s novel also has striking parallels to Zamyatin’s. For just one example, Huxley’s character Helmholtz Watson seems a direct descendent of R-13, the state poet of the One State. There are other parallels, including to Ayn Rand’s “teach the children well” juvenile novel, Anthem, and sci-fi movies like George Lucas’s cult classic THX-1138.
The rationale of the One State is that reason liberates us from animal emotions — there was then no cognitive science to show that reason is how we represent or construct the world we apprehend through our senses and to which we respond first with our emotions. Like 1984, We articulates the philosophy of a world in which, in Orwell’s famous phrase, “Freedom Is Slavery”:
Why is dance beautiful? Answer: because it is unfree motion, because the whole
profound meaning of dance lies precisely in absolute, esthetic subordination, in
ideal unfreedom. And if it is true that our forebears abandoned themselves to
dance at the most exalted moments of their lives (religious mysteries, military
parades), it means only one thing: the instinct of unfreedom is organically
inherent in man from time immemorial.
Rules and restraint are the greatest gift, thwarting crime, which is desire, and resolving doubts and choices, which disappear under the discipline of total control:
But fortunately between me and the wild green ocean was the glass of the Wall.
Oh, great, divinely bounding wisdom of walls and barriers! They are, perhaps,
the greatest of man’s inventions. Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he
built the first wall Man ceased to be a savage only when we had built the Green
Wall, when we had isolated our perfect mechanical world from the irrational,
hideous world of trees, birds, animals. . . .
D-503 recasts the story of The Fall in the Eden of the ancient God (now discarded) in terms of the unconditional surrender of will made possible by submission to the One State. And his vision of the ancients’ Heaven makes the same case for a will-less slavery:
What did people—from their very infancy—pray for, dream about, long for?
They longed for some one to tell them, once and for all, the meaning of happiness,
and then to bind them to it with a chain. What are we doing now, if not this very thing?
The ancient dream of paradise . . . Remember: those in paradise no longer know
desires, no longer know pity or love. There are only the blessed, with their imaginations
excised (this is the only reason why they are blessed)—angels, obedient slaves of God.
When D-503 is seduced into the revolution by I-330, the Julia figure, Zamyatin’s book, as translated by Mirra Ginsburg, rings with the sharp shocks of new feelings:
I am like a machine set at excessive speed: the bearings are overheated;
another minute, and molten metal will begin to drip, and everything will turn
to naught Quick—cold water, logic. I pour it by the pailful, but logic hisses on
the red-hot bearings and dissipates into the air in whiffs of white, elusive steam.
D-503′s insight into the true human condition grows as he becomes more and more alive to the power of his long-suppressed emotions. In the end, D-503 is given the saving operation, and his mind is restored, improved, for his imagination is finally and forever destroyed. He returns to the peace of the submitter, once again part of the Unanimity:
“We” is from God, and “I” from the devil.
The revolution fails – this one, for Zamyatin makes it clear that just as there is in mathematics no “ultimate number,” there is no ultimate state, no last revolution. This hope for the future overthrow of the all-powerful state is one of the reasons that We was not published in Zamyatin’s native Russia until 1988.
Thus, while Zamyatin may have inspired Orwell, he avoided the final despair of “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
on December 6, 2012
'We' provided more than a critical look at how a 'new state' can go so badly. I read this novel about 40 years ago, then had the good fortune to read a compilation of George Orwell's lterary reviews. Orwell was more than influenced by 'We', he pretty much plagarized notions wholesale from the book. Orwell's book review of We came out before his '1984' was pubished (and this is not the only time Orwell was accused of plagarism). That said for the historical record, what is noteworthy about We is the hopeful grit the main characters have in the face of a state that espouses an ideal society while trying to grind its citizens into obediency. Think the McCarthy period in the USA, or the Mullahs of Iran, or the current debates in Egypt. If only for it's prescience about future struggles by citizens to force their states to live up to ideals, this is a very worth while novel.
After reading this excellent presentation from the '20s it is clear where authors such as Orwell, Skinner, Huxley and others obtained their dystopic ideas from. "We" set the standard very early for viewing the future potential of society based on the events that were happening within the author's present reality.
While "We" is a somewhat challenging read, the additional effort required will lead to a clear viewpoint of how Zamyatin viewed the possible future evolution of existing Russian rule. Written in First Person Singular the protagonist is a tunnel-visioned mathematician living in the blissful 'One State'. Because of this writing format some of the descriptions are somewhat difficult to comprehend either due to the incomplete internal sentences that persons naturally relate to themselves or his overly-structured view of the world around him in either purely mathematical terms or ones related to socially pre-defined 'happiness'. George Orwell in "1984" used a highly similar plotline and conclusion in his portrayal of Winston.
Being a true fan of dystopia, I highly recommend this text to all persons of like minds.
on December 9, 2013
One thing I can say with certainty is that WE is a true classic and an extraordinary novel in many senses. It was the inspiration behind George Orwell's book 1984, and other subsequent books of the utopian/dystopian sub-genre, such as Union Moujik, Brave World. The age-old conflict between individual self and the collective being that man has grappled with in our efforts to become more human is treated beautifully in thus book. What is peculiar about it is that the author never allowed politics to dominate. Overall, the Utopian-Fantasy is a recommended read.
"It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment."
These words were written by the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1923. A couple of years earlier, he had written a novel entitled "We", one of the first dystopian novels in science fiction. The novel takes place hundreds of years in the future in a tightly controlled society call The One State. The central character in "We" is a man known as D-503, a mathematician who is helping to build a spaceship as directed by The Benefactor, the vague governing entity in this society. However, D-503 falls in love with a woman known as I-330 who is actually the member of a underground resistance movement.
I won't tell you the ending. No spoilers here! I will say that both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley owe Zamyatin a great debt. This novel is a delight for sci-fi fans and for fans of social satires.
Zamyatin wrote "We" as a satire on socialism, especially the harsh, totalitarian version practiced by the Bolsheviks. "We" was, as far as I know, the first novel to be banned by the new Soviet government, quite an honour!
Yevgeny Zamyatin and his wife were allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1931 and they settled into exile in Paris. To my knowledge, he never wrote another novel. Yet he was, by his own definition, one of the "alive-alive" in an age of totalitarianism of both the Left and the Right, and for that he must be praised.
on April 16, 2013
this book was purchased for a neighbor.
i recently bumped into him ans he expressed his satisfaction with the book.