on 16 October 2002
This book has an excellent and thought provoking story, and as has been noted is the inspiration for parts of 1984.
However this version of the book is spoiled by being translated into a very American version of English. This reads very oddly in places with all sorts of Americanisms that seem out of place in a Russian novel.
The introduction is very long winded and doesn't do the book justice. It treats the novel as some kind of historic curiosity rather than a book that's really worth reading. The introduction also makes the cardinal sin of giving away too much of the storyline, which is annoying if like me you read it before starting on the novel itself.
3 stars. Would have been 4 if the book had been translated and packaged better.
on 25 July 2008
Not only the original for 1984 and Brave New World and the other dystopian novels, but better than them too, in my view. Some people have knocked it for its complexity, for its comparative lack of plausibility, but the truth is that "We" is far more subtle, and its society is far more unsettling and terrifying. Some have criticised the translations, but I found the Penguin translation very good and readable: Zamyatin called it a "prose poem", and it had that quality, particularly when read aloud.
The narrator is not like the comparatively rational but disaffected characters of 1984 or Brave New World, he is a deeply confused, emotionally traumatised atomised ant, trying to gain some control over his thoughts and feelings to find a way to crawl out of his suffering. It has both the sense of wonder of a good SF novel, while having at times the psychological feeling of Dostoyevsky.
on 23 February 2000
Forget the comparisons with Orwell's 1984, Zamyatin's work stands as a remarkable message about Russia's desperate resignation to Stalin and Communism. Unsurprisingly curtailed in his native country, Zamyatin saw his nation's descent into a subservient mass of workers as terrifying. A tale of a historically tragic people transplanted into a numeric dystopia, and a reminder that the individual has to fight for the right to express himself and be aware of the consequences. The only element I dislike of this translation is Clarence Brown's snobbish and ignorant view of science fiction in his introduction. Worth reading alongside "1984" and "Brave New World" to complete a circle of complimentary fiction.
on 8 April 2006
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 NEW 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.
The key difficulty in reading this influential dystopian novel is that virtually everyone who cracks the cover, does so having already read 1984 and Brave New World. To a very large degree that is a pity, since this work predates those considerably-Orwell cited it as the key influence on 1984. However, once you've read those, Zamiatin's work has little new to offer, and unfolds in much less readable language. Our book group read it and discussed it with great vigor, but ultimately concluded that we wouldn't recommend it to anyone who had already read Orwell and Huxley's works.
The story is related through the diary entries of D-503, a rather important cog in the machine of a future city state which has hermetically sealed itself from the wild and primal outside world that is left after the Two Hundred Years War. The staccato form of the entries makes for rather cumbersome and occasionally confusing reading. The society is strictly regimented, everyone wears the same uniform, and follows set schedules throughout the day, and literally lives in glass houses. The aim of the society is to scientifically manage everyone's time and energy for maximum efficiency and smoothness, a notion Zamiatin extrapolated from the writings of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the founder of modern scientific management principles, who was highly influential in the early part of the 20th century. However, this "perfect" society-where happiness is considered inversely proportional to freedom-has yet to figure out a way to eliminate that most primal of urges, sex.
This achilles heel is what sets things in motion, as D-503, who is the lead engineer in the construction of a rocket ship being designed to expand the society to other worlds, falls for a dishy rebel who has access to the outside world. This sparks emotions and feelings he's not familiar with, the discovery of a soul within him, and wild mood swings within him as he grapples with the implications of all this. Zamiatin seems to be indicating that in our most primal urges are also the last vestiges of our individual souls. Clearly the novel is meant to attack both the rise of modern industrialism, and totalitarianism in general (not Stalin specifically though, he didn't consolidate his position until almost a decade after the book was written). Zamiatin was a revolutionary, and was jailed by the Czar's secret police on several occasions. He never renounced the revolution but did have plenty to say about those who hijacked it and created the world's most brutally efficient police state (for a good short history of that, see Martin Amis's Koba the Dread). Ultimately, this is an important novel, but not a particularly enjoyable one to read.
on 17 August 2004
Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) wrote "We" in 1920, in an URSS that was just beginning to show its true nature. He has able to observe at first hand the consequences of the expansion of the State and the Party, and the corresponding diminution 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 all do the same things at the same time, so they don't have 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 all...
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 the definition of his self ("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 in this book, but I think you will take greater advantage of reading "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 things from other perspective.
From my point of view, this novel is a classic, and it has the distinct advantage of being both entertaining and easy to read. If you can, read it soon!!. I highly recommend it :)
and we are all together.
These lyrics by the Beatles provide some flavor of the atmosphere of the futuristic society found in Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopian classic "WE". Written in the fledgling Soviet Union in 1920 "WE" had a direct influence n Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Ayn Rand's Anthem. In fact, Rand's Anthem tracks "WE" so closely both as to plot and character development that one cannot help but think that Zamyatin's influence on Rand was significant, to say the least.
Zamyatin was born in 1884 and studied naval engineering as a young man. Like many young Russian intellectuals Zamyatin was something of a revolutionary. He was arrested and exiled more than once by the Tsar's secret police for revolutionary activities. During the First World War Zamyatin, by now a naval enginner was sent to England were he supervised the construction of icebreakers for the Russian navy. He returned to Russia upon the outbreak of the October 1917 revolution. Zamyatin turned to writing full time after the revolution. Although a Bolshevik, Zamyatin chafed at the increasing censorship the Bolshevik's imposed on artists and writers. In fact, WE was the first novel to be banned by the newly formed literary censorship board, GLAVLIT. WE was not officially published in Russia or the USSR until 1988. Not able to earn a living as a writer in the USSR, Zamyatin applied for an exit visa. Zamyatin was granted an exit visa and he emigrated to Paris, were he died a sick and poverty stricken man in 1937.
WE takes place in the twenty-sixth century a time in which a totalitarian regime has created an extremely regimented society where individual expression simply does not exist. All remnants of individuality have been stripped from its inhabitants including their names. Their names have been replaced with an alpha-numeric system. People are not coupled. Rather, each individual is assigned three friends with whom they can have intimate relations on a rigid schedule established by the state. Those scheduled assignations are the only times the shades in a citizen's glass houses can be closed. Apart from those hourly intervals everyone's life is monitored by the state. As in Orwell's 1984 language has been turned on its head. Freedom means unhappiness and conformity and the submission of individual will to the state means happiness.
D-503 is a mathematician. He is busily engaged working on the construction of a spaceship, the Integral, which will carry the wonderful benefits of "The One State" to those living on distant planets. He keeps a diary to provide a record of his feelings in the weeks before the launch. But into his perfectly well-structured life walks I-330. She evokes in D-503 feelings which he has long suppressed or never knew he had. He falls in love, can't sleep, and starts breaking rules and generally acting like most of us do today. But I-330 is a heretic, an individual who smokes, drinks, loves carnal knowledge and seeks nothing more but the dissolution of the One State. The next thing you know D-503 finds himself on the side of revolution. As the book reaches it climactic moments questions as to the failure or success of the revolution are answered.
WE was a fascinating book to read. Some of the language is a bit dated and Zamyatin's 1921 idea of what the future might look like has been outstripped by the reality of 20th-century developments. However, the underlying themes of conformity v. freedom and "the state" v the individual still have great contemporary significance that keeps WE as fresh as it was when originally written.
Some have said that WE represented Zamyatin's attack on the oppression of the Soviet system. I would have to disagree. The book was written in 1920 well before the Soviet regime consolidated enough power to be considered a totalitarian society. Further, even though WE contains some reference to the damage caused by regimes such as the fledgling USSR it also contains reference (looking back from the 26th-century) to societal ills caused by both capitalism and organized religion. As such, Zamyatin believed in equal opportunity when it came to instruments of oppression.
At the end of the day it seems that what Zamyatin valued most in society were those people will to play the role of heretic. It certainly was a trait he valued in artists. As he noted in an essay written in 1919:
True literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.
Zamyatin was a heretic, a dreamer, and a rebel. WE is a worthy monument to a person who believed that the individual was more important than the state without regard to whether that state had `all life's answers'. WE should be enjoyed by anyone who has read and liked H.G. Wells (who influenced Zamyatin), Huxly, or Orwell. This is a book worth reading.
"We" dates from 1924 and if it didn't 'inspire' "1984" then it was certainly part of literature's biggest coincidence...
In a distant future where lives are highly regimented by the ominous Well-Doer, our narrator, D-503, writes a diary to inform other worlds of the beauty of his rational society. He is building the Integral, a spaceship that will carry his society's wisdom to the stars. But D encounters I-330, a woman whose maverick ways exert an unfathomable influence on him, and revolution is in the air.
Zamyatin makes good use of the diary format: our narrator is at least as surprised by unfolding events as we are, and often lapses into incoherence. He does not think to explain technologies and practices that tantalise the reader (how does an aero fly? is every building entirely transparent?), nor do we learn what is unknown to him (just what ARE they doing in those tunnels?). The story rattles along, deftly serving up its subversive political message through action and inner turmoil.
The future, like all futures, is quaintly of its time: the spaceship sits somewhere between Jules Verne and Flash Gordon, students must plug in their electric lecturer, and the supreme technology of this surveillance society does not stretch to CCTV. More curious still is the imagery: "A glance at the mirror revealed my distorted, broken eyebrows"; "her knees... were like a... permeating poison". I'm not sure whether to attribute these and other peculiar usages to the depicted culture, the narrator's idiosyncrasy, the author's style or the translator's best endeavour; but they certainly make for original prose.
This is a livelier, simpler read than Orwell's take on a similar dystopia, less grim if no less bleak. Its influence on the flavour of rebellion-themed fictions like "Brave New World", "Planet of the Apes" and even "Star Wars" is clear, but this is the pure fresh stream, still refreshing and still shockingly cold. The Soviets knew what they were about in banning it.
on 20 February 2014
The topic seems very interesting , but the way it was written did not grap me what so ever, I was glad when I finished it, I really had to force myself to get to the end. But that's books and writers for you, some love them others hate them,
on 17 September 2001
Told in the style of a journal, this is certainly worthy of the comparisons of 1984 and Brave New World but it is also an attack on the totalitarian Soviet Union of the time right down to the description of the mock elections where everybody freely votes for "The Benefactor". Perhaps one of the darker parts which recalls "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" is where an individual imagination is seen to be a dangerous medical problem that could upset the balance of the world but which can easily be cured with what is effectively a lobotomy. For my mind this rates only 4 stars however as I rate 1984 and Brave New World higher but this still remains a fine novel.