Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We was the greatest science fiction novel that had yet been written. I’m not as well-read as she was, but We, so influential on later books like Brave New World and 1984, is definitely the greatest one in my experience. From the beginning, its narrator, known like all residents of a future OneState only by a number, D-503, records in glowing terms all the beauties of the mathematically precise walled city of glass, equations, uniformity and unfreedom in which he lives.
He sustains his enthusiastic voice throughout the 40 records of his diary that comprise the novel, even as he is drawn into dangerous new thoughts and observations, breaking into his tranquillity and ultimately shattering the peace and perfection of his world.
Ruled by the Benefactor, the citizens of OneState are governed by the Tables that structure everyone’s life, hour by hour, minute by minute. Walled out of the glass city is all the chaos of the former world of wildness, including uncontrolled vegetation, animals, birds, perhaps human remnants who escaped the great revolution that overthrew the world of free choice and unbounded nature.
D-503 takes pride in being the first builder of the historic spaceship Integral, now preparing for its initial flight. It is intended by the Benefactor to convert other planets and races to the perfect regime of mathematical certainty and to do so by force, if persuasion doesn’t work. As much as he revels in the uniformity of life where all citizens live in glass buildings, all do the same activities at the prescribed time (including sex when curtains can be lowered) and every problem has a mathematical solution, he also notices all the details that diverge from the norm.
The clouds that mar the beauty of the perfect blue sky make him wonder how people used to dwell on their ragged forms. A bit of clothing that is not quite right brings to his mind the folly of past humans who could wear anything they pleased. In fact, there are dozens of details he records about the “perfect” ordering of his world that bring to mind the undisciplined nature of his forebears. He is disturbed by what he feels is excessive hair on his “monkey” hands and suspects that a strain of wildness still exists within him.
When he meets a strangely alluring woman, I-333, he seems to be completely captivated by her willingness to stretch and break the rules. The more deeply he becomes involved with her, the more tortured his reflections are.
He resolves to turn her in to the authorities, but never quite gets around to it and is pulled more and more deeply into her world. Then, she takes him to a tunnel leading outside the great wall that isolates the glass city from the world of wildness. Step by step she draws him into a transgressive existence that culminates with the revolutionary actions of a group called the Mephi that want to overthrow OneState, break down the wall and capture the Integral.
D-503 records all his shifts of mood and increasing desperation in carefully observed detail, filling his prose with exuberance, whether praising the Benefactor or reviling himself and I-333. For all his commitment to mathematical precision, order and certainty, he is wildly passionate, however confused he might become.
His voice is a truly poetic one, capturing one vivid detail after another and evoking the full range of emotions in the dramatic journey that turns his world upside down. It is that voice that stays with me, especially in those passages where he is torn between his perception of beauty and his attraction to wildness and freedom while trying to explain away those sensations.
“They say that to see dreams was a common normal thing with the ancients. Yes, after all, their life was a whirling carousel: green, orange, Buddha, sap. But we, people of today, we know all too well that dreaming is a serious mental disease. I … Is it possible that my brain, this precise, clean, glittering mechanism, like a chronometer without a speck of dust on it, is …? Yes, it is, now. I really feel there in the brain some foreign body like an eyelash in the eye. One does not feel one’s whole body, but this eye with a hair in it; one cannot forget it for a second.…”We, Momentum Kindle edition, Location 396
Zamyatin wrote We in 1921, yet it remains fresh today in the way all great writing does. It’s not only vivid and gripping to read, it also grapples with the basic questions of what makes human life worth living, what freedom and imagination are all about, what rules people can consent to live by and the courage to rebel. For me this is an unforgettable book.
We had the terrible distinction of being the first novel banned by the new soviet leaders after the 1917 revolution. While Zamyatin was not killed in the purges of the 1930s, he left his homeland and died in poverty in 1937. The novel was translated into English long before it could appear in the Soviet Union.
There are many currently available translations, including several that are free in Kindle editions. I read We in a version called the Momentum edition (originally published in Australia) by an anonymous translator, but I have also read an excellent version by Clarence Brown in a Penguin edition. They are available in Kindle ($$), and I happened to rely mostly on the Momentum edition for this review. Both are good though I prefer some of Brown’s word choices, such as his use of OneState and the Benefactor instead of the more awkward constructions of the United State and the Well-Doer. But whatever translation, you can get hold of, please read this short novel. It’s unforgettable.