I honestly don’t enjoy reading about disfunctional, dystopian worlds very much. I find myself consuming more coffee than tea, and being commensurately edgy and perturbed. Honestly, I’d rather be back to detective stories, history books, poetry, and works of popular science. But the state of the world right now demands that we talk about other things, at least, sometimes. So here we are.
Zamyatin’s We, readers are informed by translator Clarence Brown’s introduction to the Penguin edition (1993), was originally composed roughly between 1920-21, early in the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, which saw the brutal deaths of the Tsar and his family. But due to the climate, We was first published in the United States by Dutton in 1924, in France in 1929, and finally in Russia in 1988. The English and French translations both worked from Zamyatin’s Russian-language original, but there were evidently some minor defects in that manuscript which led to a few minor issues with translation. However, the book was a minor success, and was claimed, perhaps most famously, by George Orwell as the direct progenitor of his own classic novel of a distopian future, 1984.
The comparison with 1984 is unfortunate, because although I went into We looking for those connections as much as I sought an original viewpoint, I came away with the feeling that Orwell’s book was simply better. There are reasons why 1984 is widely read, while We remains somewhat more obscure.
We is told as a series of connected manuscripts, or “Records”, although the author sometimes loses that thread, and the manuscript becomes a third-person narrative when, narratively, it couldn’t possibly be a written record. Set somewhere between 600 and 1,000 years in the future, We depicts a society which is ruled by an authoritarian Benefactor, who has built (or maintains) a city of glass behind the Green Wall, outside of which nature has reverted to a primitive state, and ruins abound, along with some human and animal life. A 200-year period of war which preceded the establishment of this society is referred to occasionally, but the details of this war, or even of the location of the OneState are left vague. Within the city, men and women are known only by alphanumeric designations, and lead regimented lives governed by the Table of Hours, which dictates all activities, except during the limited Personal Hours. Everything is governed, down to the pink tickets issued for connubial visits with willing partners, which is the only time when curtains are lowered around the ant-like workers’ cells, for modesty. The work of the Benefactor is supported by the Guardians, an anonymous group of enforcers who have the power to apprehend, torture, and execute non-conformists as they see fit.
The narrator is D-503, a man who is First Builder on the OneState’s new spacecraft, the INTEGRAL. D-503 is a mathematician, and construction of the craft is nearly complete. Although I couldn’t find that it was explicitly stated, it appears that the men and women of We have no facial or cranial hair, and D-503 even meditates negatively on the fact that he has noticeable hair on his hands, which he feels makes him more primitive in appearance. The baldness, coupled with the uniformity of the sky-blue “yunies” worn by the members of the OneState, paints a stark picture of a conformist, anti-individualistic future. D-503 recounts his work, his casual affair with the plump and simple O-90, and his friendship with OneState poet R-13. D-503’s life is one of order and regularity, until he meets the mysterious I-330, an unusual and, for D-503, fascinating woman. I-330 leads D-503 into a secret world that exists on the periphery of the OneState, and involves him in a plot to escape the Benefactor. The Benefactor, in the meantime, had developed a new surgical process to remove that most troubling of human burdens: the imagination. So the scene is set, much as it was in 1984, for a confrontation between a servant of this state (in D-503’s case, he is a far less thoughtful and far more loyal drone than Winston Smith), and the unyielding force of the OneState.
Much of the science and technology of 1920 appears in this tale, but there is little imagined beyond it. For this reason, the highest level of technology present is the telephone and primitive radio, and calculations are performed with pen and paper and slide-rule. Fraunhofer lines, used for determining emission spectra (a way of breaking up the light from an object, either terrestrial or off-planet, to determine its chemical composition) are mentioned, although oddly, the name is misspelled as “Frauenhofer” (p. 19). Mathematical principles, like the square root of -1, also feature in the narrative. Much as Orwell’s 1984 imagined two-way telescreens, but no computers, the point of this tale is not so much one of prognosticative imagination, but of future as allegorical parallel to the present.
What didn’t work for me in this tale is the sort of dreamy disconnectedness. At times, the novel feels almost poetic, at times it is grimly realised, and sometimes we are clearly not getting the whole story. It struck me that D-503 was an unreliable narrator’s unreliable narrator; that is to say, his depiction of events was twisted by his perception of events, which was wrong, and that he deliberately obfuscated — or simply did not understand — some parts of his own narration. His thinking was alien, and that made the story itself seem alien. I couldn’t decide if this was an artifact of translation or in the original work, and it would have taken at least a comparison with either the original American translation, or the French edition, for me to have a better sense, and that simply seemed like too much work for characters and a story that I didn’t overly care for or about.
Regrettably, I don’t have the language skills in this case to decide if the defect is in the translation or the original story, but We‘s floating, almost dreamlike world is by turns beautiful and annoying, and curiously alien throughout. For me, something never quite gelled in D-503’s tale (although perhaps that was the point). There are moments of near-brilliance in We. And I feel disquieted only coming away with an unidentifiable sense that I “just didn’t like something” in the book. But that’s all I’ve got. There was something in the story that I just didn’t like. Maybe it’s that I’m currently not thrilled with Russian things anyway, even if they are comparatively innocent.
At the end of the day, We is a book that does what it’s billed to do: it is an inspiration for and a precursor to Orwell’s 1984. Some of the themes touched on by Zamyatin were forced into bloom by the hothouse of Orwell’s imagination and the foment of political ideas following World War II. The translator even suggests that, although Huxley evidently didn’t read We before he wrote Brave New World, something in the zeitgeist of the time inspired Huxley’s similar work. I would counter that some of the obsessions of the 1920s, ie; liberty, sexuality, and authority all find evocations in these two books, but that Huxley’s is a much more richly imagined and thorough construct. Readers who are following the thread of dystopian writing in the 20th century should still give We the short time it will take them to read the story.