Yevgeni Zamyatin’s We is not the first work of dystopian fiction. But because of it, it is far, far from the last. Existing at a point on the handle of a torch about where the hand grasps, Zamyatin’s work has undergone multiple iterations in the hands of other authors since it was first released in 1924, a fire seemingly erupting in its wake. Others efforts may burn brighter but they are still homages (or plagiarism, depending on viewpoint). With varying degrees of license, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, China Mieville, Ayn Rand, Lois Lowry, Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess, Arthur C. Clarke, even David Mitchell’s recent success Cloud Atlas borrow elements of the novel. Looking back over the past century, what The Lord of the Rings is to epic fantasy, so is Zamyatin’s We to dystopian literature. It has minor faults, but remains a must read for its influence on genre.
Hovering in and around science fiction and fantasy, We is foremost a tragedy of mythic proportion. The novel set in the glass city of OneState, the residents live in a perceived utopia. Rising, working, eating, and sleeping in the proscribed rhythms of the Table, life is synchronized to the minute. From sex to “free time”, music to stride, uniforms to humor, the citizens of OneState live according to the mechanized (machinized?) movement of the clock and the hyper-formality of state regulated existence under the watchful eye of the Benefactor. Zero room for imagination and individuality, violators are publicly scorned and electrically melted. But beneath this severe façade of rote and etiquette, and outside the Green Wall which surrounds the city, a movement is stirring.
We is the story of D-503, a mathematician working on the building of Integral, OneState’s first ever rocket. A superb citizen, D-503 follows the movement of the Table perfectly. He laughs at the irregularities of ancient music; praises the rhythm of engines and choreographed humanity; respectfully awaits the pink tickets of his assigned partner O-90; is in awe of the “subversive” statements of the poet R-013; and in general lives the expected life of a citizen to a ‘T’. But when the mysterious I-303 enters his life one day, questions and dichotomies begin to arise that throw his world into a state of flux. The fallibilit of OneState slowly dragged into the equation, D-503 becomes more involved than he’d like in activities outside the Green Wall.
Regarding style, We is rooted in idealism rather than realism. Where Orwell delved into the gritty details of Oceana, Zamyatin presents OneState along mythic lines. OneState society is detailed just enough to fit the scene, while overall imagery and plot movement remain emblematic. Fully modernist in feel, the glass streets, buildings, workplaces, room arrangements, etc. all have a sparse, planar feel in keeping with the movement. The characters too are representative rather than concrete. Archetypes, they must be approached ideologically rather than empathetically. And actions, also. The symbolism inherent to the plight of D-503 is of more importance than the realism of his character. Cartoonish if not for the poetic nature of the prose, the book is a crystal vision of the future, humanity larger than life.
Given the large number of iterations that have appeared in the wake of We, it is perhaps an understatement to write the novel is thematically rich. Thought-provoking, there are a number of questions and circumstances to contemplate. OneState is an entirely safe existence with all the amenities of life provided—but at the expense of individuality. That humans are willing to enable such social paradigms (e.g. fascism in Germany) is likewise fascinating food for thought, and Zamyatin indulges. Seemingly seminal for every book that has since presented the juxtapositions and parallels to the human idea of a perfect society, We is important.
There are a couple of potential complaints about the novel, however. The first is the ending. Not whether it is suitable or not, rather that the epic proportion which precedes it is not properly reflected. Guttering rather than flaming out in tragedy, the events which lead up to the finale, for example the suspense surrounding Integral, D-503’s interaction with the Benefactor, and I-330’s mysterious existence, all offer more richness and drama than the closing scenes. The final hammer blow of We is a weak one. Secondly, D-503’s involvement with OneState at the outset is perfect—too perfect, in fact. The first half of the book features numerous scenes wherein he waxes poetic, praising the beauty and grandeur of his society. He describes his relationship with O-90 as more than satisfactory. Moreover, his personal ideology is presented as clicking with the system’s through memories of his youth. That Zamyatin also makes the reader privy to his private thoughts indicates the sentiment is genuine. The question thus arises: if D-503 truly enjoys life in OneState, why upset it? If the world is perceived as perfect, how can destroying it improve matters? Orwell, by portraying Winston Smith as dissatisfied and secretly subversive, corrects this aspect, producing a more plausible representation of humanity in the process. Zamyatin uses I-330 effectively, but it would seem the acceptance of OneState by the characters is too idyllic.
Despite these potential issues, it is easy to see why We was so influential on later writers. The storyline simple yet reaching deep into human notions of autonomy and social harmony, that numerous others have since taken the idea and developed it in their own way is a testament to the fecundity and profundity of Zamyatin’s premise. Written in a style mixing poetry and myth, the life of D-503 is abstract yet thought-provoking and worth a read—perhaps even necessary—for the reader who enjoys dystopian literature.