We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

In my quest to remedy my ignorance of 20th century Russian literature, I tackled the grandfather of all dystopian novels, Zamyatin’s We. We tells a story similar to 1984 (unsurprisingly, since Orwell read and reviewed Zamyatin’s book), but where 1984 is concerned with how people break psychologically, We is more about how the main character has long since internalized the rules of his society and how a rebel (a genuine rebel, whereas in 1984 there’s the suspicion that all opponents of the regime are sockpuppets) changes his views.

Zamyatin joined the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia and was arrested several times. An engineer, he worked for the Imperial Russian Navy (apparently they didn’t mind his record) and traveled to the UK for his work. He missed the February Revolution due to being in the UK, but returned just in time for October. However, he grew disillusioned with his own party for their censorship, and decided to have We smuggled out for publication in the West.

We‘s dystopia is based on Communism, Taylorism/scientific management, and Christianity (it is remarked several times that the Christian churches were forerunners of the society in We, and the rebels are named after Mephistopheles). I also detected the influence of Plato–the secret police are known as the Guardians. The Big Brother character (or, I should say, prototype) is known as the Well-Doer or the Benefactor depending on the translation. Interestingly, Zamyatin’s protagonist, D-503, actually gets to meet this character face to face.

There’s also a space ship.

D- is an engineer building a space ship for the government, and writing a record of life in the United State (singular, not plural) to be transported to the aliens that the spaceship will presumably meet. But as he falls for the revolutionary I-330, his record becomes ever more exciting–and problematic for him. He believes in the ideology of the United State, and is confused by his attraction to a woman he knows is against it–and, as the book goes on, his own “criminal” actions.

There is a scene in which the revolutionaries attempt to hijack the spaceship, and generally the book is more exciting than the classic dystopian novels. There’s real hope that the state will be defeated, and the cracks are showing by the end, though the main character is lost forever to a forced operation that destroyed his imagination and made him a conformist again.

I have to agree with Orwell that the loose plotting is a flaw–the same effect could have been achieved in many fewer pages. I also felt the portrayal of O-, D-‘s initial lover, was misogynistic, though this may have just been because we’re seeing it through the eyes of D-, who is definitely sexist. I- is a very different sort of female character, so I’m willing to attribute some of the sexism to D-‘s narration.

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