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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

We (original 1924; edition 1993)

by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Clarence Brown (Translator)

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souloftherose's review
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is an early dystopian novel, possibly one of the earliest and certainly an inspiration for George Orwell's 1984. In fact, I was surprised how closely the plot of 1984 follows the plot of We.

D-503 is our narrator and the head of the great Integral project of OneState. In OneState people are given numbers rather than names and every hour of the day has an allocated activity. As a background to D-503's narration, the Integral is being developed, something like a spaceship or rocket that will be able to fly to other planets so that the inhabitants of those planets can also share in the beauty that is OneState. OneState, it seems, has decided that it is best for humanity to have happiness rather than freedom. In fact, it believes that happiness lies in having no freedom. D-503 starts off as an enthusiastic supporter of OneState but when he meets and becomes enthralled by the rebellious female I-330, he becomes more and more confused about what he believes.

The novel is described as a prose poem and I have to confess that I felt like I struggled with the prose at times. I read the 1993 translation by Clarence Brown, published by Penguin Classics but I found a couple of reviews that preferred the 2006 translation by Natasha Randall so this may partly have been due to the translation I was reading. I think there is probably a lot more to this short novel than I picked up on from my slightly rushed first read. Zamyatin uses a lot of mathematical imagery that I would like to think about more deeply on a reread. I think 1984 would probably get my vote for the better book but We is certainly worth reading if you want to understand the background to Orwell's book.

"I shall attempt nothing more than to note down what I see, what I think - or, to be more exact, what we think (that's right: we, and let this WE be the title of these records). But this, surely, will be a derivative of our life, of the mathematically perfect life of OneState, and if that is so, then won't this be, of its own accord, whatever I may wish, an epic?" ( )
3 vote souloftherose | Jul 3, 2012 |
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A man starts a journal. He sits in a glass armchair, at a glass desk, in a glass room. Around him, thousands of other men and women sit in their own glass rooms, in glass buildings in a huge megalopolis entirely made of glass.

Set in the 26th century, in an urban civilization that has reorganized itself after a nuclear Armageddon, the engineer named D-503, starts his journal to celebrate the “Integral”, a spaceship he helped to design and which will soon leave Earth to conquer and civilize the inhabitants of other planets and other galaxies.

OneState, a dictatorial regime led by the “Benefactor”, rules the city. Private property does not exist. Nameless citizens have been denied any individuality and are just "numbered cogs” in an immense urban machine. Their life is regulated around the clock, up to the minute, according to strict efficiency rules laid out in “The Table” and enforced by sinister Guardians. The transparency of the glass city has rendered all privacy impossible with the exception of their 15 minutes of emotion-less weekly sex, when couples are briefly allowed to lower the blinds of the windows of their dwellings.

When D-503 wakes up, we get a strange “endless reflection” effect, like the one we get when we stand between two mirrors facing each other :

[…] time to get up. To the right and the left through the glass walls I see something like my own self, my own room, my own clothes, my own movements, and all repeated a thousand times. It cheers you up ; You see yourself as part of an immense , powerful single thing. And such a precise beauty it is : not a wasted gesture, bend , turn.

While the intention of his writings is to laud the society he serves, D-503, will unintentionally record in his journal, his own progressive mental and social breakdown. Two women, more brave than himself, will tempt him into rebellious acts of love, transgressions that will bring him face to face with the repressive forces of the most brutal of tyrannies.

As the novel is written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a Russian living in the beginning of the 20th century, (1884 – 1937), a reader could easily misunderstand “We” as a reaction against the Soviet and Stalinist dictatorial horrors. But, to be really that, the book was written a decade too early. The draft of the novel dates from 1919 and by 1921 it was already censored, well before the Stalinists purges of the 1930’s. Rather than an indictment of the Soviet rule, “We” is in fact an eerie accurate prophecy of things still to come. The true genius of Zamyatin, an engineer by profession, was that he merged the several societal developments he witnessed, into a credible Monster of the future societies.

Partly inspired by HG.Wells’ scientific socialist utopias, but himself a huge inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, Zamyatin in his novel links the dots between the collectivization, he witnessed on a large scale at the Tyne Shipyards in England, Lenin and Stalin’s attempts to incorporate Taylorism into Soviet manufacturing and Bentham’s architectural theories of how to control inmates by the very shape of their prison.

Notwithstanding its intellectual scope, We still is an agreeable read. The novel exudes some kind of thirties charm, the charm of the old Buck Rogers - Flash Gordon comics, with its descriptions of men and women dressed alike, in a Uniform with a numbered badge on their heart and the girls in the control room of the space ship launch wearing cute winged helmets.

The novel has its funny details too. In this world of excessive egalitarianism, as said, man and woman do not have a proper name and are recognized by a given number. Males have odd numbers prefixed by consonants; females have even numbers prefixed by vowels. The narrator for instance is D-530. While critics insist that these numbers were inspired by the technical specifications of the icebreaker Saint Alexander Nevsky, on which Zamyatin was working, I rather think that the writer amused himself and later his readers with a few jokes. The adventurous femme fatale who disturbs and infringes on the narrator’s life is called I – 330. She is indeed svelte like an I and the twist and turns of the double threes stand for the sexy curves of both boobs and buttocks. The woman who is designed to D-503's for his cavorting on command is named O-90. She is shorter and more rotund and wants to have a child. The nine is easily recognized as the shape of a fetus in an early stage. Onestate has forbidden O-90 to get pregnant for she does not fit the right profile of length. The double agent S-4711 has a snaky double curved twist and stinks like a cheap foreign perfume. And maybe the D of D-530 stands for Durak or fool, a man failing to recognize his destiny.

On top of the charm and the fun, Russianness too, seeps through the lines of this dystopia. Not only is there a Babushka guarding the door of the only opaque building in the city, other and more literary allusions abound. There are for instance the negroid lips of the narrator’s poet friend who remind us of Pushkin, there is the Gogolian obsession with noses, but the work that comes most to mind is Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov novel. Indeed, Onestate, the society build on rational principles and scientific laws is Ivan Karamazov’s progressive dream turned into a social nightmare. The figure of the “Benefactor” reminds us strongly of the Grand Inquisitor and his creation of a society meaning to do good, to eliminate war, hunger and poverty, but ending by being bad, for having cut out its social and religious value systems, to have lacerated itself from its citizens. And finally, OneState’s worse enemies are those individuals, who like Misha, the other Karamazov Brother, have freed their so-called Karamazovian force, that crude unbridled earthly force which sits in the center of our soul, a passionate animal lust of freedom.

A dystopia, even a Russian dystopia like the one written by Zamyatin, is a middle-class fiction. An idea is worked out to such an extreme level, that it becomes a warning of things to come for those people, affluent enough, to lose something if things further develop along the predicted lines. It always strikes me that even in the bleakest of dystopian novels, the Maslowian levels of physiological and security needs are never at the core of the problem. This obviously stands in stark contrast with the real, war drenched, 20th century in which they were written. Even today, for the more than 800 million people suffering of chronic undernourishment and the many more, homeless and war affected wretches, Zamyatin’s story (if only they could read ) would be a fairy-tale rather than a nightmare.

One man’s Dystopia can be another one’s Utopia.

What makes “We” particularly interesting is that Zamyatin is identifying the two real underlying mechanics that still push us onward to what we consider today dystopian, but which might well be our everyday life in a very near future.

Depicting OneState, this future world of terror, as a clear transparent urban nation, almost entirely constructed out of glass, is a stroke of genius. One can easily follow Zamyatin’s reasoning why the use of transparent building block is the most efficient tool for dictatorial oppression. For people living under the oppressive State - control often have the impression that the secret police can see right through the walls of their private dwellings behind which they hide.

In all its glass and steel architectural modernism OneState is nothing more than a huge prison for its citizens. Such real constructions existed already when Zamyatin wrote his book. One thinks about the Panopticon prison design developed along the ideas of the 18th century English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. In a Panopticon (observe – all), a single person can watch a greater number of people without that they, say the inmates of a prison, can see who is watched or not. Bentham boasted that his concept was “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” And indeed, while people realize that they cannot be all watched all the time, they start to act as if they are watched constantly, effectively controlling their behavior.

The panopticon concept is outdated nowadays. Electronics and IT have replaced it more effectively in ways even Zamyatin could not foresee. The enthusiasm with which we adopt the blinking new technologies like mobile phones and GPS, home computers and Internet is hurling us at neck breaking pace towards the world Zamyatin is warning us for.

The use of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare, Linkedin, Snapchat, private blogs, email, electronic membership cards, user registrations, mobile and electronic banking, have effectively replaced glass transparency and allows to any “Great Benefactor” out there, to “see”all we do and get control over our private lives.

The second and more important mechanism exposed by Zamyatin is Taylorianism.

Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 – 1915), is the so - called father of scientific management and industrial efficiency. He was the fine gentleman who debased the manual worker to the level of the machine cog, by stating that if they were so stupid as to do manual work, they were certainly too stupid to understand the simple tasks they were doing.

For the implementation of his efficiency methods, Taylor was equally clear that it could only happen through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best working conditions, and enforced cooperation.

While a greater efficiency was certainly attained through its methods, people like Mintzberg correctly warned that an obsession with efficiency would overshadow less quantifiable social benefits and social values and degrade work into monotonous and skill-reducing tasks that would alienate workers from what they were doing.

Still in We, Taylor is a God and his efficiency methods a mantra.

D-503 somewhere enthusiastically exclaims:

“No doubt about it, that Taylor was the genius of antiquity. […] How could they write whole libraries on Kant and hardly even notice Taylor – that prophet that could see ten centuries ahead?”

And in the immense hangar, the engineer holds his breath when he observes the teams at work on the Integral, that immense spaceship:

“I watched the men below, how they would bend over, straighten up, turn around, all in accordance with Taylor, smoothly and quickly, keeping in time, like the levers of a single immense machine.”

Again, information technology today has brought Zamyatin’s world closer. While Robotics and more efficient – computer steered machinery have made the problems on the work floor less acute, the developments of IT have also allowed to apply Taylorism to white collar jobs. Embedded in a wrong company culture, IT and the possibility to apply draconic efficiency rules to office jobs, has turned employees and clerks into the new salary slaves.

With all that in mind, one starts to understand that Zamyatin’s book is by far superior to Orwell’s dystopia. While Orwell just had to glance over the iron wall to see what he predicted, Zamyatin’s not only foresaw much earlier what was going to happen in his mother country, but he also identified for us the mechanics on which a modern rational authoritarian society could be build. Zamyatin’s warning still stands , more acute than ever I would say, and in his short but brilliant little book, he also advices on the stance to take:

"There is no final revolution. Revolutions are infinite.",one character says.

Nothing less than a paraphrase of Karl Marx’s famous world-shaking concept of the “Permanent Revolution” ( )
12 vote Macumbeira | Apr 10, 2014 |
When you're trying to create a compelling dystopia for the reader (or for yourself, or whoever man), it strikes me, there are no easy choices. Do you go for lazy accessibility, a la Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where everybody's kind of aaaaalmost a lower upper middle class British technocrat only with the sexual mores that we know all those lower upper middle class British technocrats would adopt for their own if they thought they were either attractice or iconoclastic enough to get away with it? Do you go for radical camp, like George Orwell in 1984, where psychological plausibility takes second place to totalitarian gothic? (Many of us will have seen that thing that points out how Airstrip One is a fever dream but London 632 After Ford is already here.)

Or do you take the path less chosen, the face less boottrod, the hole of obstacle golf less played? Zamyatin, whose status as the major source for both Huxley and Orwell is so obvious as to be beyond dispute (a feat in itself! though Huxley did deny it) gives us a disjointed, inaccessible, but oh-so-real insider's view of a thousand-year reich where simultaneously all that is solid is melting into air (fittingly, given that humans are "numbers") through the eyes of one of its more brilliant and poetic denizens (D-503 he gets the chance to be because he's the designer of the spaceship, the Integral, through which the One State is going to enslave the other planets of the galaxy. This state, conceived at the beginning of the Soviet era, still needs people in such creative genius roles; I suspect that if it ever actually comes to this kind of frank totalitarianism the invasion fleet'll be built by a million sleepy dudes screwing together a billion widgets). It's an extraordinary book and I have no idea how to review it except to say that I read it like a tone-diary of fears and curiosity-never-stamped-out and the tender shoots of humanity, protected anxiously by tender humans not even equipped to realize that their actions constitute rebellion (but none the less subject to liquidation for that).

Our one right is the right to punishment. What is the last number? Horrifying and heady thoughts, and this book's full of 'em. It's psychologically real--a veritable Gormenghast in the gleaming machine of our more awful possibilities as a planet--and for that, from outside the bad future with no bad future brain, it's hard to follow where Zamyatin goes at times. I didn't always understand what kind of neural bloodflowers were bursting forth from D-503's head, but I will always remember this book and you should too. ( )
11 vote MeditationesMartini | Apr 6, 2014 |
Before I didn’t know this, but now I know, and you’ll know it too: laughter comes in different colours. It is only the distant echo of an explosion occurring inside you: it might be festive rockets of red, blue, gold, or it might be shreds of human bodies flying upward…

Never was a dystopian novel so brightly coloured, so jangled and vivid, so like a kaleidoscope. Never has a dystopian world been brighter – sparkling with glass and blue sky. And has any other dystopian hero (or anti-hero) been so turbulent, so vivid, so uncertain?

We is of course a political satire. It attacks the Soviet Union as Zamyatin knew it, and the idea of the police state. Part of the philosophy of the One State is: Freedom leads to desire which leads to unhappiness; therefore the sure path to happiness is to remove freedom. So there in a sealed, controlled glass world, every cipher obeys the Table of Hours, doing almost absolutely everything in unison. There is no longer any concept of ‘the unknown’. Everything is clear, precise, mathematically predictable.

But our (anti)hero, D-503, falls in love with a rebel and develops a sickness, diagnosed with horror as ‘a soul’. And so begins the turmoil. We is in fact not only a political satire, it is more universal than that. It’s a kind of personal, every-person satire as well. This business of being a ‘person’ is at the heart of what We is all about. The uncontainable, painful, colourful, explosiveness of being alive, with an imagination, a heart, desires. Logic and reason, so clear-cut, so cool and composed, hits the white-heat of illogical humanity, and the fizz it makes is uncontrollable.

Sometimes what’s actually happening isn’t quite clear, but the sense of being there in it is. Emotions and reactions are full of colour here, through Zamyatin’s eyes. It’s supposed that Zamyatin had synaesthesia – I am sure of it. That’s what makes his writing so apt and vivid, even when it doesn’t make much sense.

We shouldn’t forget that the novel itself was a courageous political act. The manuscript was smuggled to New York, translated into English and published there in 1924, to the outrage of the Soviet State. According to Wikipedia, (forgive the blandness of that), Zamyatin apparently wrote to Stalin himself, pleading for permission to leave the Soviet Union in 1931. (Incredibly, permission was granted!) In that letter he wrote: “True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics.” We can let that sentence stand as the ultimate description of this novel.
16 vote ChocolateMuse | Apr 2, 2014 |
I know that this book is often-cited as Orwell's inspiration for '1984' leading to 'Brave New World' by Huxley ... and I see the parallels, but this book lacked the boldness and maybe some of the clarity found in other dystopian classics.

Probably worth the read from a purely literary perspective, especially if you love classic dystopian and sci-fi literature. ( )
  steadfastreader | Mar 18, 2014 |
It was really interesting but I'm kinda confused which is why I can't give it a higher rating. I really loved the writing style and D-503 was such an interesting character. ( )
  bethie-paige | Jan 29, 2014 |
  balanezer | Dec 26, 2013 |
This is a very weird book. It's written in a very strange fashion that almost seems like the ravings of a madman or like someone trapped in a dream. Like its descendants "Brave New World" and "1984," "We" is a chilling tale of a "utopia" that tries to make people act as close to machines as possible, culminating in a lobotomy of the imagination. Having a "soul" is considered an illness, and for D-503, the protagonist whose journal we are reading, everything changes when he meets the intoxicating and enigmatic woman I-330.

Since we are only seeing this world through D-503's journal, we get only tantalizing hints of what this glass utopian world looks like, and D-503 seems incapable of writing a complete, coherent sentence of dialogue. I don't know if that's just the style of the author or partially a problem with translating from Russian, but it was a bit frustrating trying to understand what was going on. "1984" and "Brave New World" are much more accessible to a modern audience, and while I recommend reading "We" at least once, because it is an interesting style and there's some lovely imagery in it, I did not enjoy myself enough to read it again. ( )
1 vote Starsister12 | Dec 24, 2013 |
Provocative insight into the human psyche and the frightening tolerance of human beings to allow a limit upon their individual freedom by an oppressive state. The author creates a world where the state comes first and the people are completely subordinated to the state. While the state is ruled by a governing elite that appear enforce the will and power of the government upon the people, there seems to be no shocking limit to what the people will endure in service to the state. All sense of individuality have been removed from the people, such as names, the choice of sexual partners, food, et al. As the state seeks to expand its ever increasing hold over the people, a revolutionary medical procedure has been developed which will strip the people of their individuality. Adults have no problem subjecting children to the medical procedure but when it is their time for the procedure, chaos and anarchy breaks within the state out by a select few who resist the attempt. The author wrote this book prior to a number of similar books, such as "1984", and is heralded as a visionary. A must read for anyone who loves and understands the concept of freedom. The fictional world created by the author's view was most likely deemed "not possible" at the time of its writing as it was published to protest the events developing within Communist Russia. However, when this book is read today and one considers the technical advances of medicine and the unprecedented loss of freedom on a worldwide scale, the fictitious future envisioned by the author seems to be on the verge of becoming a reality! ( )
1 vote Taurus454 | Dec 19, 2013 |
This story of the thirtieth century is set in the One State, a society where all live for the collective good and individual freedom does not exist. The novel takes the form of the diary of state mathematician D-503, who, to his shock, experiences the most disruptive emotion imaginable: love for another human being. (Modern Library)..This says it better than I can.

Because this was written in the 1920's it is pretty fascinating for that reason alone. Written by a brilliant man about the future in the words of a mathematician, the book is a diary and is written in such a fashion that thoughts are not always complete. It is also a love story as well as a story of rebellion from the collective good. I think there is much symbolism in the story and one would benefit from reading this book several times. ( )
  Kristelh | Nov 16, 2013 |
A precursor and inspiration to most dystopian novels Zamyatin's We is a spectacular account of a future One State. In this One State order is the pinnacle of happiness and freedom equates to unhappiness. Everything and everyone in the One State operates on a schedule, there are no surprises, no one has a proper name (rather a letter followed by a number, determined it seems by gender) and little is left private (buildings are constructed mostly of glass). That is, until the main character (and author of the journal that makes up the book) D-503 meets I-330 and has his normal life turned on end. And as you can imagine things get interesting for D-503 from here.

The language of the novel is quite striking, for an excellent example check out Ben Loory's review as he quotes the finest example. If you have any interest in dystopian novels this is an absolute must read. ( )
  dtn620 | Sep 22, 2013 |
Dear O- was to come in an hour. I felt agitated, agreeably and usefully. Home at last! I rushed to the house office, handed over to the controller on duty my pink ticket, and received a certificate permitting the use of the curtains. This right exists in our state only for the sexual days. Normally we live surrounded by transparent walls which seem to be knitted of sparkling air; we live beneath the eyes of everyone, always bathed in light. We have nothing to conceal from one another; besides, this mode of living makes the difficult and exalted task of the Guardians much easier.

I've read We several times before, and this time I wondered whether D-503 suffers from a form of prosopagnosia (face-blindness), as he never really describes what anyone looks like, fixating instead on one particular feature, such as a rosy O-shaped mouth, gill-like neck folds, or an X formed by eyebrows and the creases between nose and mouth. It is clear (to use one of his favourite phrases) that D- is not a natural rebel, and if it weren't for his job, I don't believe that I-330 would have chosen to approach him

By the end I was still unsure whether S-4711 is on the side of the rebels or not. If not, then I-330 is extremely unconcerned, even blasé, about him. Although the narrator and others let their sentences trail off rather than finishing their thoughts (maybe because they are always aware of the possibility of surveillance), so maybe she doesn't even realise that he is worried about S- following him.

One of my favourite things about this book is the open ending. The threat of the Operation starts to bring out the Numbers' individuality, and although the One State is reasserting its control, it isn't a foregone conclusion that it will succeed. ( )
2 vote isabelx | Aug 2, 2013 |
El final más horrible de cualquier historia es "Y todo sigue igual" ( )
  Heinrich_Faust | Jul 20, 2013 |
A little over the top at times, even for a reductio ad absurdum. Has a lot in common with [b:1984|5470|1984|George Orwell|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1348990566s/5470.jpg|153313], including the "I was perfectly happy being a cog in the machine until I fell in love with a woman, which made me realize I have emotions" thing. Solid dystopian novel. ( )
  wirehead | Jul 9, 2013 |
Some of this book was boring to me, but considering when it was written it makes it very impressive. I definitely prefer more modern dystopias, but I am glad that I read the book that basically begin one of my favorite genres of books. ( )
  Barb_H | Jun 20, 2013 |
I was hooked to this book by the end of the first chapter. It follows D-503, mathematician, as he keeps a journal destined to be sent up in a spacecraft full of propaganda concerning the greatness of One State. As with many novels depicting 'perfect societies' before and after it, the story revolves around realizing the importance of personal liberties and holding onto a sense of self, even when circumstances try to force the abandonment of these things in exchange for safety and predictability.

This book caught my attention more than some other dystopian novels because of the way it was told. I loved the point of view and how protagonist D-503 struggles to keep his known reality in order as it continuously and ever more drastically falls apart. I related to this person, which may say some crazy things about me, but I can't help it. Have you ever thought you had something figured out, or thought something was going well, and then watched it crash and burn and stood in the wreckage and thought to yourself, "where did it all go wrong...?" Then you should read this book. ( )
1 vote Maryk205 | May 16, 2013 |
(Fourth book/fifth text for the readathon.)

It's easy to see how important We is in terms of dystopic fiction. I'm glad I got round to reading it, even if I didn't love it and found it hard to follow. Something about the writing style -- something I've encountered in most Russian fiction I've read, I think, but something that's particularly strong in this -- made it hard to read.

Character-wise, there's not much to hold onto, which is a side-effect, of course, of the fact that it portrays a society in which the individual is not important, is only a number, the tiniest fraction of a single entity. Still, given that the central characters are breaking free of this, for most of the novel, I wish there'd been more to them, more to hold onto and remember. There are some passages that stick in the mind, but it's characters I tend to find truly memorable. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
At least it has a sliver of a happier ending than Orwell's 1984. ( )
  KidSisyphus | Apr 5, 2013 |
The cover of my copy of this book claims to be the most influential science fiction novel of the 20th century. I'm not convinced that's the case, unless it influenced Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury and claims vicarious influence through them, because let's face it: most people haven't even heard of this book. It is indeed a dystopia, where people have willingly sacrificed their freedom and individuality in the name of happiness. Everyone has a letter and number instead of a name. Everyone's actions are completely synchronized, down to each bite of food. All walls are transparent except during sex, which is restricted to certain hours of the day and only with a pre-approved coupon from your partner. When our protagonist, D503, meets the alluringly subversive I330, his world is turned upside-down. Unfortunately, the writing is kind of terrible. A good portion of the sentences end in ellipses, leading me to wonder if anybody in this world is capable of finishing a sentence. It leaves a whole bunch of stuff to inference. Maybe I'm just dense, but I had a lot of trouble figuring out what was going on. And then, after all that confusion, the ending still manages to be trite and predictable. There's a reason why 1984 and Brave New World are more famous than this one: their plots and philosophies, at least, are possible to follow. If you read only one dystopian novel this year, choose something else. ( )
  melydia | Apr 5, 2013 |
I read this in undergrad and truly enjoyed it. I also love Brave New World which is quite similar. Great read for any lover of classic dystopia. ( )
  StefanieGeeks | Apr 5, 2013 |
D-503 lives in a perfect world, the One State, where everyone lives for the whole collective and there is no individual freedom. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a record of the diary of D-503, a mathematician who is living and working in this apparent Utopia. However the cracks appear and it becomes clear that this is really a Dystopia. Dystopia is utopia's polarized mirror image. While using many of the same concepts as utopia—for example, social stability created by authoritarian regimentation—dystopia presents these ideas pessimistically. Dystopia angrily challenges utopia's fundamental assumption of human perfectibility, arguing that humanity's inherent flaws negate the possibility of constructing perfect societies, except for those that are perfectly hellish. Fictional dystopias like the one in We present grim, oppressive societies.
Zamyatin skillfully has his protagonist slowly discover the true nature of his world and his own being. The changes begin with discoveries like that of irrational numbers: "This irrational root had sunk into me, like something foreign, alien, frightening, it devoured me--it couldn't be comprehended or defused because it was beyond ratios." (p 36) The world of D-503 is two centuries in the future and much of the thinking of the "Ancients" has been lost but all is not forgotten, unfortunately what is remembered is treated mainly with disdain as superstitious nonsense. It does not belong in the perfect world of the One State.
D-503 realizes he is more than a mathematician, he is a poet, and "Every genuine poet is necessarily a Columbus. America existed for centuries before Columbus, but it was only Columbus who was able to track it down. " (p 59). But he has his doubts. He meets I-330, a temptress who defies the rules, and he finds her appealing. Their relationship reminded me of the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden. The story told by D-503 in his diary is a tragedy for him, but not necessarily for the state in which he exists. This reader found the logic of his journey appealing even while the symbols and references of the author were often mysterious and elusive. The novel was most effective in its portrayal of the atmosphere, the feeling of what it was like to live in the collective world of the One State. In this Zamyatin showed the way for Huxley , Orwell, Bradbury and others who followed him in establishing the twentiety-century Dystopian literary tradition. ( )
  jwhenderson | Apr 2, 2013 |
Author Yevgeny Zamyatin took part in two Russian Revolutions, hoping to overthrow the abusive and excessive Czarist system. He had joined the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), and believed Lenin's promises of a more equitable society, where labor controlled the means of production. By 1920, he tried to remain hopeful, but it was becoming apparent that the country was going in the wrong direction. Three long years since the Revolution had not moved anyone closer to a "workers' paradise"; if anything, it had seen the development of more severe censorship, martial law, and police state surveillance. Across town from Zamyatin's flat, Joseph Stalin was contemplating delicate political maneuvers which would make him the uncontested dictator of the USSR in five years' time. Zamyatin couldn't have known about that, but he knew something was amiss, so he picked up his pen and began writing We.

Along with George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, this 1921 novel is the least-known of the triumvirate of big 20th century dystopian tales. It has a special credibility for being not only the first of the three written, but also the only one composed by someone who was actually living in a police state. This gives the work an immediacy which the other two lack. Whereas 1984 and Brave New World only point to a faroff England which might one day be, We bears the imprint of the Soviet society Zamyatin inhabited daily.

It is the story of a mathematician (D-503) on staff with the space agency of the One State. It shares plot elements with 1984, in that D-503 starts off an apathetic but essentially pliant tool of the state. He has an emotionless association with lifepartner O-90, and an arm's-length friendship with propaganda publisher R-13, but these accessories fail to bring any pleasure or purpose to his life. Entertainment in the One State consists of political functions and state-arranged prostitution with an assortment of joyless partners. Along comes (what else?) a woman and shakes everything up. I-330 is unlike anybody D-503 has ever met before. She's so full of life, so luminary in an otherwise drab and gray oppressive world. What makes her different? Same as the Julia character in 1984: she's got critical thinking skills, she believes there is more to life than the monolithic State, and she harbors a spark of rebellion in her. She's part of an underground resistance called the "Mephi". The parallels with 1984 are very strong here. D-503 and I-330 enjoy a brief romance, during which he becomes aware of the stifling true nature of the State. He starts to share her dream of what an alternative world, a better world could be, but before he can act on it, the State discovers them and intervenes. D-503 is broken... not with torture as in 1984, but with a lobotomy. Just as Winston Smith is induced to sacrifice Juliet to preserve himself, We closes with the execution of unrepentant I-330.

Did Orwell rip off Zamyatin? The paths of influence are unmistakable, but no. The two works bring very different strengths to the table. Orwell examines the political mechanisms of tyrrany. His entire exploration of the interaction between Inner Party, Outer Party and Proles is brilliant; as is the balance of power between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia; the Inner Party's use of the Trotsky-like scapegoat Emmanuel Goldstein; the manipulation of language to political ends in "newspeak"; and O'Brein's dissertation on the history of Oligarchical Collectivism. These are all Orwell's own, and they make 1984 the powerful work it is.

We, on the other hand, examines totalitarian life on a much more personal level- as one might expect from an author with Zamyatin's life experiences. D-503 lives his life mechanically, with the resignation of the completely disempowered. He looks for somebody or something at which to target his anger, but the problem is everywhere; he's entrapped within a comprehensive and interlocking political/economic/social/academic system, with no hope for escape. His loveless partnership with O-90 sucks the life out of him, but he can't be angry at her; her life is as bad as his. His job holds diversionary value for him, but he isn't free to explore his own interests; he serves at the pleasure of the State, and is only valued as a tool to further State aims. The recreational prostitution available to him has no element of personal connection, desire, or conquest. In truth, it's a sort of disguised duty, because once he declines partaking in the sexual bread-and-circus any more, it raises suspicion. Zamyatin was probably as intellectually able as Orwell to explore the political science of the One State, but he doesn't, because he is interpreting his own life experiences through D-503, and unlike Orwell, he has the credibility to do so. In fact, one testament to the truth and authenticity of this novel is the official Soviet response to its printing: Zamyatin had the good sense to know We couldn't be printed in the USSR, so he had it smuggled to Czechoslovakia. When the book became a minor sensation in the West in 1921, Zamyatin was harassed by the NKVD (secret police) and suffered numerous career setbacks. His timing was good though, in that We was first published years before Stalin consolidated power through a series of purges and showtrials, beginning in 1934. If Zamyatin had still been around in '34, there is little doubt he would have been rounded up and tried with other dissidents, and then worked to death in a gulag camp. As it is, he was able to get his friend Maxim Gorky to personally appeal to Stalin, to allow him [Zamyatin] to leave the country. He emigrated to Paris in 1931, and We remained contraband literature in Russia until 1988.

If you have an interest in dystopian literature, this book is not to be missed.

Personal note: one of my college admission essays was about We. ( )
  BirdBrian | Apr 1, 2013 |
Dystopia in a "Utopian" society where everyone is happy because there is no longer anything to worry about. Portends the mindset of Stalinist Russia. Everything is perfectly harmonized and calculated- almost. This story is set in that thought-provoking grey margin. ( )
  aylin1 | Mar 31, 2013 |
For a small book this one took me much longer than I had anticipated. It is complex and evocative and fantastical and logical and very Russian.

Written in Russia in the 1920's during the Russian Civil War [b:We|76171|We |Yevgeny Zamyatin|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1321919581s/76171.jpg|2144026] is one of the first major dystopic works and went on to inspire writers like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut.

It it set in the distant future in the nation (or city) of the One State, a totalitarian society where everything is structured around logic and mathematics. Everybody runs like clockwork with precise duties and motions to go through at their scheduled time. Every building is made of glass so no one can hide from any other. Or so they would like to believe.

The protagonist is D-503, an engineer who is the lead on a project to take their society to the stars to convert new worlds to their regime. Their plan is proceeding well until D-503 meets I-330 and his life and the society he lives in will never be the same again.

A strange, bewildering and, at times, confusing book it cannot be completely understood or explored in one read. I know it will take multiple reads to really glean everything there is, to wrap your head around the ideas and concepts hidden within. A society built on logic and math cannot last. Passion, emotion, both good and bad, will always erupt in the end as we are but human. But who knows. Maybe The Matrix also took something out of this and this release of expression is all part of the Benefactors plan. We shall never know. ( )
  Shirezu | Mar 31, 2013 |
I am glad I read this book, but I cannot say I liked it. The issue is not the writing (at least [a:Gregory Zilboorg|452347|Gregory Zilboorg|http://www.goodreads.com/assets/nophoto/nophoto-U-50x66-4df4c878d4149c45fac159e88cb784ad.jpg]'s translation reads very well), nor his portrait of subdued personalities in a totalitarian, brain washing environment, but for me this book simply did not stand the test of time. Since then we have so much knowledge of the terrible things man is capable to do on man, and of the terrifying simplicity in truth ([b:Death Dealer: The Memoirs Of The Ss Kommandant At Auschwitz|10540650|Death Dealer The Memoirs Of The Ss Kommandant At Auschwitz|Rudolf Höss|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328316537s/10540650.jpg|267311] is the starkest example for me), not to mention what we now now about the horror of Stalin's Soviet Union, or the tragedy of North Korea's Camp 22 (the story and the BBC documentary) so that this dystopian novel falls somewhat short of what it should have accomplished.

In terms of the narrative, too, it felt a bit incoherent: why is the protagonist allowed home after each and every odd encounter with people of authority (including the Well Doer himself?). Why can he go back home after the Integral debacle? Sure, minor issues - read it if you care for its "historical" value (it is said to have inspired Brave new world and 1984, so you can put those in context - Wikipedia has some interesting information on this). ( )
  PaolaM | Mar 31, 2013 |
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