In 1921, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We became the first book to be banned by the Soviet censorship bureau, Glavlit. Mr. Zamyatin was not able to emigrate until 1931 when he arrived in Paris, some seven years after his novel had been published in English. We may have been the model for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Mr. Huxley claimed not to have read the novel but George Orwell declared him a liar over this point. Mr. Orwell began work on his classic novel 1984 just a few months after reading We and never denied its influence on his own novel. We was not published in Russia until 1988.
So is this a history lesson or a book review?
The pleasure contemporary readers will find in reading We is equal parts literary and historical. Whenever science fiction makes a prediction about the future, be it utopian or dsytopian, it affixes a sell by label to itself. Sooner or later, it will become at least slightly dated. While it can remain both entertaining and enlightening on a literary level, it will also become a piece of historical interest. This is the case with We.
It’s easy to spot We‘s influence on George Orwell. In We, a mathematical genius called D-503 is working on the first interplanetary space craft called the Integral. The One State, where D503 lives, controls every aspect of its citizens’ lives, down to the hour of each day– rest, work, even the daily hour of free time are all controlled by the One State.
During his hour of free time D-503 meets a woman, I-330, who tries to convince him to join her in a revolt against the state. I-330 takes D-503 to places he would not have considered before, like the other side of the Green Wall which separates the One State from the wilderness that was civilization before a series of wars destroyed all but a small percentage of humanity. Contact with I-330 leads D-503 to begin dreaming which is a sign of mental instability in a world determined to find a way to surgically eliminate imagination from the human mind. In the One State, logic is all that matters.
Because D-503 is writing We as a confessional and because he often states how shocked he is at his own behavior in retrospect, the reader knows that his romance with I-330 will not end well. If you’ve spotted just how similar We and 1984 are, and you remember how things turn out for Julia, the love interest in George Orwell’s novel, then you know what to expect.
So is there more to reading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We than finding a greater understanding of George Orwell’s 1984? Are there literary rewards to be found along with the historical ones? Try this passage from early in the novel when D-503 reads a poem by the great poet R-13:
…I had been taking pleasure in a sonnet called “Happiness.” I think I’m not mistaken if I say that it is a thing of rarity in its beauty and depth of thought. Here are the first four lines:
Forever amorous two-times-two
Forever amalgamated in passionate four
The hottest lovers in the world–
And it continues on about all this–about the wisdom and the eternal happiness of the multiplication table.
Every genuine poet is necessarily a Columbus. America existed for centuries before Columbus but it was only Columbus who was able to track it down. The multiplication table existed for centuries before R-13 but it was only R-13 who managed to find a new El Dorado in the virgin thicket of digits. Indeed: is there a place where happiness is wiser, more cloudless, than in this miraculous world? Steel rusts; the ancient God created an ancient human capable of mistakes–and, therefore, He made a mistake Himself. The multiplication table is wiser, more absolute than the ancient God: it never–you understand– it never makes mistakes. And there is nothing happier than digits, living according to the well-constructed, eternal laws of the multiplication table. Without wavering, without erring. The truth is one, and the true path is one; and this truth is two-times-two, and this true path is four. And wouldn’t it be absurd, if these happily, ideally multiplying pairs started to think about some kind of freedom, by which I clearly mean– about making a mistake?
I’d say that’s pretty good. Logic prevails. Happiness lies in predictable, mathematical order. Poets and mathematicians to not invent, do not imagine. Instead they simply discover what is already there, reveal what is true. Freedom is a mistake. On the other hand, we can’t help but look at We historically, because we know how important two plus two is in George Orwell’s 1984 where the state can force even mathematics to bend to its will and become two plus two equals five.
Hat-tip to Amy H. Sturges and her Genre History articles on the Starship Sofa podcast. If you’re a science fiction fan and you’re not listening to her articles on Starship Sofa, you should be. They are always interesting and they have led me to many fascinating books like We.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011. I’ve kept it because I liked it and because I loved the cover art. I think it would make a fun re-reading project one day–read it along with Brave New World and 1984 just to see how well all three still work and how much We influenced the other two. The more I read the more I see influence all over the place.