BOOK REVIEW: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

REVIEW SUMMARY: Important to the dystopian genre, but a difficult and often boring read.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The diary of a member of the OneState who begins to question his life and the virtues of the state, due to the attention of a rebellious woman.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: interesting ideas, historical significance
CONS: unsympathetic characters, disjointed narrative, scarce descriptions
BOTTOM LINE: Many of the themes and plot points used in We are also used in the more readable – and more famous – 1984.

D-503, builder of the INTEGRAL, the space ship that will bring the OneState to the stars, starts this missive with the intent of including it in the propaganda transported by the ship. But his treatise on the virtues of the OneState gets hijacked when the mysterious I-330 crosses his path. Suddenly his writing is more about dreams and hopes than the realities of life and the happiness brought by a lack of freedom.

The fun of reading dystopian fiction is seeing how things run in this ‘perfect’ society. We is surprisingly lacking in this regard. We learn that buildings are made of glass (with blinds that can be lowered only for scheduled – and approved – sexual encounters), that lives are carefully regulated with the exception of two personal hours each day, and how crimes are punished. There’s a glass wall keeping the outside world out and people eat a manufactured petroleum product. But there’s no information about how children are authorized and raised (I say ‘authorized’ because one character becomes pregnant illegally). There’s little description about the work D-503 does, though it’s quite important to the state. There are only vague references to what is taught in the auditoriums each evening. In other words, you get tantalizing images but no full picture of life in the OneState.

The writing style is first person narration, but the narrator has trouble forming complete thoughts – or at least, writing the ends of his thoughts down. The reader must constantly work at understanding his meaning, which isn’t always easy. This is especially noticeable when recounting conversations.

The characters aren’t very sympathetic. O-90’s plight is pitiable, but this reviewer really disliked I-330 and even D-503 became irritating in his lack of clarity and indecision. The description of R-13 and his ‘African lips’ (one of the few character descriptions given) is difficult to put into context, in that he is the only character with such a moniker. It’s hard to tell if he’s actually African (and the society is multiracial) or if he just has large lips. I-330 seems too mercenary in her actions and, given the novel’s narrative style, it’s impossible to tell if she is just using D-503 or if she honestly cares for him in some way.

While some of the ideas posited were interesting, this isn’t a book I can recommend outside its historical significance as one of the first dystopian novels. Many of the themes and plot points used in We are also used in the more readable – and more famous – 1984. Given the choice between the two, I’d suggest 1984.

19 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin”

  1. Is this some kind of joke?

    I think you’ve managed to miss every single point the book is trying to make from prose-style to political system and the role of the dissident in collectivist cultures.

  2. Welp, between the review and McCalmont’s comment, perhaps it would be worthwhile to have another reviewer write an opinion on this novel so that there’s a point of comparison?

    Minor pet peeve – why did you use “this reviewer really disliked …” and in the next paragraph “I can recommend..”? There’s no need for the former way, as it’s needlessly formal (and makes me think of scientific papers, which this really isn’t). Is it a dig on the written style of the novel itself?

  3. “Many of the themes and plot points used in We are also used in the more readable – and more famous – 1984. ”

    You make this sound as though 1984 came first: this isn’t the case; rather, 1984 is influenced by this book and others. I think that there’s a lot missed here.

  4. Reviews are subjective. This is my opinion. Feel free to disagree with it.

    I write two reviews, one for SF Signal that they prefer to be formal (no ‘I’), so I must have missed one when I rewrote their copy. Sorry about that. I know ‘this reviewer’ sounds formal, that’s what I was told to use for my reviews here.

    I know 1984 came first, I just think it dealt with the themes better than We. Again, this is my personal opinion and I’m entitled to it, just as you’re entitled to disagree with it.

    1. “I know 1984 came first, I just think it dealt with the themes better than We. Again, this is my personal opinion…”

      Actually it is provable fact that We came first, by almost 30 years.

      Also, it’s a cop-out for a reviewer to say that “it’s just my personal opinion” – the very position of reviewer depends upon an authority deriving from the reviewer being able to read better, understand better, or express better the value of a literary work, which assumes some kind of objective standard you reject with your excuse. Otherwise there is no value to a review, and no reason why you or anyone else should be given a soapbox by a culture site like SFSignal.

      Defend your opinion as valuable, or change your mind if you wind up agreeing with the commenters here, but don’t undercut the entire field of what you just did.

    2. Nobody is going to disagree that reviews are a single point of opinion and that you’re entitled to it: that doesn’t mean that your review is a good one.

      – You clearly understand the thematic similarities between We and 1984, but you don’t highlight precisely *why* 1984 handles them better.
      – You don’t really back up why the characters are unsympathetic, but rather focus on what you didn’t like about the prose.
      – You don’t say what ideas are interesting, and why that isn’t enough to recommend the book.

      Coming out of reading this, I can’t tell exactly why 1984 is the book that you would recommend, other than that you told me to. Basically, all that I know is that you had trouble getting into the prose, but I can’t say what the book’s about, how its content lines up against other dystopian stories (or how this falls within the dystopian genre), and it seems to be read/written without any knowledge about the intend behind the story in the first place.

  5. Jessica, who did the translation on the edition you reviewed? The edition shown is the Clarance Brown translation (which I’ve never read). I recommend the Mirra Ginsburg one. Reading three different editions of this book showed me at a young age how vital a good translation is. Compare Ginsburg’s rather lyrical take to Gregory Zilboorg, whose translation reads like a Readers Digest condensed book.

  6. A second recommendation for the Mirra Ginsburg translation — not just readable, but incredible. Don’t think there’s much need to horse-race them, but I found We more insistent and more harrowing than 1984, and I think a lot of that was down to stylistic immediacy.

  7. Yeah, it’s entirely possible my translation was bad. I really didn’t like the prose and it’s hard to tell what’s the translation and what’s the original. I don’t remember who the translator was, as I read it a few months ago now. I tried reading it in grade 9 for class, but couldn’t finish. I thought reading it as an adult would be easier/more understandable. Next time I’ll check a few translations and see which is better, or maybe go online for suggestions.

  8. I read this one back in 2008. Didn’t find it boring at all. In fact, I ended my long discussion of the book:

    “‘We’ is certainly not for everyone. It is at once a futuristic science fiction adventure, a political satire, and a work of profound classical literature. It is a book whose hints of dread are often powerful enough to form complete images in the reader’s mind of just how terrifying it would be to live in this sort of future, without having to spell out exactly what is going on behind the scenes of the One State. It is a tragic and eerie tale with echoes of hope and promise. I believe this book would appeal to lover’s of classical literature as much as to science fiction fans who enjoy looking at the history of where some of our more beloved dystopian authors got their inspiration. I also recommend that after reading this book a person reads the foreward by Bruce Sterling and the notes by the translator Natasha Randall. Those sections, along with a perusal of the Wikipedia page for ‘We’, make for very interesting reading after one has partaken of this work. This book has a history and depth of symbolism that is every bit as intriguing to discover as is the story itself. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did.”

  9. The translation I read was by Natasha Randall and although I haven’t compared it to the others I can say that it was very engaging and not at all boring.

  10. Look, I think this reviewing system is very fair. Warhammer novels regularly get four or five stars and classics like We get dumped on. In the ongoing dismantling of all hierarchies I find it heartening that the hierarchy of good taste is also being leveled out. Viva la revolucion! I shall be the first to put myself up against the wall.

    1. Eek! I don’t know what that is! Besides, you’d probably come back at me about some noir thing I like…

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