REVIEW: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

In my stroll through the classics, I feel like I’ve gotten my fill of utopian literature, now thankfully out of style. However, in reading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) I filled in a gap in my dystopian lit library. I’ve read 1984 (1949) and Brave New World (1932) of course, and also “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forester (1909 — a brilliant short story, if you’re interested). We stands out both for its power and also for its context: an early supporter of the Communist revolution in Russia, Zamyatin quickly realized the abuses that were being perpetrated by those in power. This work is a reaction to those abuses and a classic “If This Goes On–” style warning. However, it couldn’t be published in the author’s native land. It was published first in English after being translated. There was an attempt to sneak it into Russia by selling a version supposedly translated from the Czech, but the book had already been banned. Apparently it wasn’t published openly in Russia until 1988. Zamyatin himself was forced into exile in France starting in 1931. That very real historical context adds a lot to the power of the novel.


The novel’s narrator is D-503, the chief engineer of the first interstellar space ship. He lives in a completely controlled state, the United State: one government, a walled-off nation, no privacy, everything timed down to the minute. Because of his prominent role, he is targeted by the female head of a revolutionary movement, I-330. He falls in love with her and becomes very confused–anything that happens unpredictably throws him into complete cognitive estrangement. Up until the events of the novel, his life had in every way been circumscribed and regimented. This is probably the main strength of the novel, to intensely show how someone raised under state control would be completely thrown by even the simplest unpredictable event. He doesn’t understand what he is feeling for I-330, he doesn’t understand what her motivations are, and he often tries to run back to the comforting regularity of the state. He is the opposite of the Competent Man–because he was never allowed to become one. This can make him a little annoying to read: in both narration and dialog he often stutters, there are many ellipses, and at times he becomes completely unhinged from reality because he cannot reconcile what is happening with what he has known. It is both effective and disconcerting to read.

“It’s clear… that is…!” I wanted… (damn that cursed “it’s clear!”). [p. 29]

(Luckily, this is not a very long book – less than 150 pages in the edition I read.) D-503 and I-330 manage to meet in a somewhat secret meeting-house outside the city and sometimes in their quarters in the city. Brief periods of privacy are allowed for each night for couples to have sex, and they take advantage of those times. D-503’s relationship is made even more complicated by the needs of his former sexual partner, O-90, who wants desperately to have his child, and the unwanted attention of U-, an ugly woman who can foil his plans (men have name/numbers beginning with consonants, women’s begin with vowels). While D-503 is obviously a very intelligent engineer (many of his metaphors are explicitly mathematical; this reminded me of Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad and also reminds one that Zamyatin was trained as an engineer in Russia), almost everyone in this book seems to have figured out what is going on politically except him.

D-503 becomes more or less incapacitated by what is going on. He goes to a doctor, who may be sympathetic to the rebellion, and is diagnosed with having developed a soul. Apparently he’s not the only one; to combat the epidemic, the United State (headed by the “Well-Doer”) orders mandatory lobotomies for everyone. During this time the interstellar ship Intrepid is launched, but the rebellion faction who hoped to take control of the ship is thwarted by agents of the state. D-503 is unaware of his role in tipping off the state to the takeover attempt. The end of the story, as we expect from dystopian literature, is not happy for anyone.

This book uses many of the tropes that ground the dystopian subgenre: numbers instead of names, state control through panopticon, euphemisms for horrific things, awareness of media propaganda (sometimes newspaper articles are included in the text), and a protagonist encouraged to challenge the system because of romantic love. One thing that I found interesting was that the system of state control was based on Taylorism–the first ‘scientific management’ system meant to maximize the output of workers. This is something we would today associate with a corporate/capitalist dystopia instead of a Communist one. So instead of having the sacred Time Tables of the United State based on a WWII fascist “make the trains run on time” idea, they are instead based on a broad expansion of labor efficiency management principles (which are often misapplied and inhumane even today).

I can’t say that I liked We. Dystopian literature isn’t usually the sort of thing that one enjoys. However, I appreciated the power of the narrative and the techniques used to convey it. It is a very effective piece that I think illustrates cognitive dissonance or estrangement about as much as anything I’ve ever read. If you only read two dystopian novels, I think they would still have to be Brave New World and 1984, just because they are such touchstones in the West. However, if you read three such books, I would recommend that We be the third.

8 thoughts on “REVIEW: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin”

  1. This is the book that taught me the importance of translation. The Mirra Ginsberg translation (which you’ll find in any used book store, promise) is downright Bradbury-esque in its poetic tone.

    Reading the Randall translation for me was akin to watching the Hitchhikers Guide movie: the scenes are there, but the narrative is hollow.

    Also, the Ginsberg edition made the One State feel like a distant alien place, not merely an extrapolation of Russia into the future.

  2. Looking back at my copy, it turns out I read an edition with translation by Gregory Zilboorg. Your comments are making me very tempted to track down the Ginsberg translation–if I see a copy, I’ll definitely pick it up. Thanks!

  3. It’s been ages since I read We, but I remember feeling like my understanding of 1984 and Brave New World were grately affected by reading this, and that all three stood shoulder to shoulder in importance.

  4. This is something we would today associate with a corporate/capitalist dystopia instead of a Communist one.

     

    huh?

    Can you even name one corporate/capitalist dystopia piece of work that resembles this?

     

    In fact the corporate/capitalist dystopia i have seen fall into three categories.

     

    1. Inhuman –  eat or be eaten. This would be the Glen Gary Glen Ross example plus there is the fan favorite “The Jungle”. This also covers Evil corporate bond villains and other examples in which that big bad corporation break various moral codes….like they kill people or use children in factories.

    2. Nepotism – only those with connections can succeed The Invisible Man and Neuromancer would fit this bill. Note: not “The Invisible Man” you are thinking of.

    3. Environmental disaster – Corporations use too much resources create a super virus or destroy the world through climate change this one is covered by anything written by Kim Stanly Robinson plus we have fun old speculative writer Margret Atwood and her book Orynx and Crake

    Of the 3 only number one comes close to filling the bill of what you are claiming. But even there it is very different. In those cases the evil corporate/capitalist simply fires people who are inefficient and either replaces them with a machine, a migrant worker, someone more competent, or simply down sizes cuz through some work of magic the corporate/capitalist has destroyed the economy.

     

    I guess there might be a forth category involving advertising to control people to buy stuff….i can think of a few episodes of Futurama which focus on just that.

  5. Joshua-

    I have to admit, I was thinking more of the real world than of pieces of fiction when I wrote that line. Specifically, Taylorism and its descendents, (TQM, ISO-9000, Six Sigma) have turned some workplaces into surreal nightmares of misapplied ‘efficiency measures.’ In contrast, when I think about Soviet-era manufacturing processes (and in the conversations I’ve had with immigrants from Soviet-era Russia), ‘scientific management’ is NOT the first thought that comes to mind.

    So I guess the literary corporate dystopia I was thinking about here is Dilbert!

  6. Yes!

    My favorite thing to do is look back at how the future was imagined. In some cases the past future is already passed… there is a thesis in there somewhere.

    So translation. The Penguin Classics edition I have is translated by Clarence Brown. The introduction addresses some of the translation issues briefly. The ‘Big Brother’ is referred to as OneState which has a different connotation than the United State has for us. Lots of metafictional meat to chew on here. I mention this because of your reference to Lem who was also translated into English by various people. Kandel is my favorite.

    It also bears mentioning that the tropes found in this and so many other trailblazing works are only tropes now that others have beaten the path. Which came first, Big Brother or the Panopticon?

  7. You MUST read the Mirra Ginsberg translation. In ANY other translation, the beauty is lost, and that beauty is what sets We apart from other dystopia novels.

  8. Thanks so much to the commenters on this review. I have been Googling in vain all morning for opinions on the various translations available for this novel. After reading two enthusiastic thumbs up for the Ginsburg edition here, that is the version I’ll check out. Thanks!

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