Zamyatin’s We

Yevgeny Zamyatin. Drawing by Boris Kustodiev. 1923

We is the grandfather of Sci-Fi and perhaps the first dystopian novel. Zamyatin finished it in 1921 and quickly ran afoul of the Soviet authorities. He was always running afoul of the authorities. In this case, it was because he satirized the very same system that would repress any book about that system. Implicit and explicit in the book was the fact that it would be suppressed by its subject.

Set in the distant future, it’s the story of D-503, a mathematician and builder of the Integral, the One State’s first starship. D-503, like all the citizens of the One State, has also been tasked with creating works to fill that starship.

He reads the announcement at the beginning of his journal . . . .

All those who are able are required to create treatises, epics, manifestos, odes, or any other composition addressing the beauty and majesty of the One State.

The novel takes the form of his contribution, a diary. But it becomes apparent, as the novel progresses, that the reason for the request in the first place is not just about propaganda. The mass writings are also a subtle form, a far more personal form, of eavesdropping. The citizens of this world live in glass houses, and can only draw the blinds when they have their requisitioned time for sex. At all other times, their lives are an open book, with the Guardians being the chief watchers. But their thoughts are still potentially their own, and these thoughts are coveted by the Guardians, who do the bidding of the Benefactor.

It is a highly structured, mechanized world. Taylorized. But there are forces seeking to disrupt that order, that rigid, unbending structure, and they appear to D-503 in the form of a woman, I-330. She rocks his world, and their relationship drives the novel forward into mystery and revelation.

Zamyatin’s prose (translated beautifully by Natasha Randall in 2006) is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Elliptical, darting, spare, it is charged with mathematical ions and surreal equations. It is the language of a scientist, engineer, or mathematician, who has poetized those knowledge fields, rearranged them for new consumption. Zamyatin has his protagonist describe fellow ciphers (citizens of the One State) as geometric shapes, as cubist dreams. And his language of description grows bolder, more poetic as the book moves along, as if he gains confidence, becomes more daring, the longer he spends with I-330 — though he has his doubts and moments of panic.

As if in answer to the power of I-330 and her underground movement, the One State is pushing for all citizens to have the Operation. Scientists have located the physical place in the brain for the imagination, and the Benefactor wants that removed. From everyone. In that society, happiness is in direct conflict with the imagination, and so it must be expunged. Happiness, blissful, ignorant happiness, is the sum total of all that is good and holy. In a couple of scenes that might have come right out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the ciphers are marched into the machine that removes the imagination, and march back out completely changed. The first members of lobotomy-ville.

On the other side of those walls, of that society made of glass, is a world few from the One State ever see. A world of Nature, where free men and women roam in the wild. That world encroaches on the One State more and more as the book proceeds, and plays a huge role in the denouement . . .

Will talk a bit more about We in my next blog entry, my own contribution for the starship. Primarily to add George Orwell’s take on this revolutionary novel . . .


Zamyatin’s We
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