I’ve consider myself something of a connoisseur of science fiction, so I raised my eyebrow when a friend insisted a novel I’d never even heard of is seminal to the genre. Naturally, I had no choice but to dash off and read We as soon as I could get my hands on it.
As soon as I read it, I saw what she meant. It’s often said that British political thought is perpetually caught between two dystopias, the authoritarianism of Orwell’s 1984 and the enforced hedonism of Huxley’s Brave New World. What I didn’t know was that both those dystopias drew heavily from Zamyatin.
Like 1984, Zamyatin’s future society regulates every aspect of the citizen’s lives, from the clothes they wear to when they work, sleep and take exercise. Like 1984, the citizens live in a panopticon that allows very little opportunity to transgress.
Like Brave New World, Zamyatin’s protagonist is an intellectual who should be a leading exponent of his ideal society, but whose spirit rebels. Like Brave New World, the emotions that consume him are simultaneously rebellion and insanity.
The themes and backdrop made much more of an impression on me than the plot, which has been copied into cliché since We was published in 1924. It follows the misfortunes of D-503, a model citizen who works and recreates to the approved schedule and is satisfied with his twice weekly sex hour prescribed by pink ticket. Then he breaks every rule of OneState by falling in love with the dangerously unconventional I-330. The novel spends far more time on his inner turmoil than on the mechanisms of OneState, so we see OneState as he sees it: the landscape in which the story plays out.
The shade of Bolshevik Russia looms large over the authoritarian idealism of OneState. I only found out when I’d finished it that Zamyatin spent several years in Northern England during the First World War, which presumably inspired the industrial drudgery of OneState.
In fact, We is as much a part of the Anglophone as of the Russian canon. The Soviet government was unimpressed with the vision of a perfect society that executed dissenters, so it was first published in its English translation. The influence of the first modern dystopia, HG Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes doesn’t lie far below the surface while OneState’s conflict with the hirsute forest people inevitably brings The Time Machine‘s morlocks and eloi to mind.
Orwell acknowledged Zamyatin’s influence on 1984 and although Huxley denied that he read it before he wrote Brave New World, I think Orwell was right when he said ‘Brave New World must be partly derived from it’.
If I’m spending more time talking about the novel’s legacy than about the novel itself, it’s because much as I wanted to love it, I didn’t find it much fun to read. Perhaps because of the translation, I found myself skating over a lot of the narrative and finding I’d missed key details. On the other hand, it may be that I got a bit tired of D-503 banging on about being miserable. Perhaps I picked the wrong translation.
In short, not page turner but it’s an essential one for anyone working through the canon of either dystopian or science fiction literature in English.