Yevgeny Zamyatin: ‘We’
We is a little known novel that has an impressive pedigree. For a start it is the novel that inspired Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and was inspired by and stands as counterpoint to H.G. Wells’ various attempts at describing his ideal of a scientific utopia. Written in the early 1920’s in Russia when the Bolshevik revolution was at the height of its power, the book was banned only to surface in translation first in New York, then around the world. This is also the book that earned Zamyatin exile from Russia. So, with such an outstanding place in literary history, is there a reason why We is not better known?
Despite the translator claiming in the otherwise excellent introduction to the Penguin Classic’s publication of We that the book is postmodern because it represents the future, it is immediately obvious that this is a modernist novel. The clean lines and crisp prose of the early section of the novel when the protagonist D-503 is a firm believer in the scientific hegemony give way to impressionistic sweeps of the authors linguistic brush. This is, however, no Monet we are dealing with. The sharp dislocations and semi-transparent blurrings of action into ideology bring to mind the technologically inspired paintings of the Vorticist movement, and in their speed and experimentalism conjure the early Italian Futurists. The author’s sympathy clearly falls upon the side of nature and freedom, but the book is mostly concerned with the city and with the human as machine. Indeed, the narrative feels as if it is as much a criticism of Marinetti and Fascism as it is of the namechecked Taylor and Russia’s fledgling Communism.
As a modern reader, the bulk of the novel comes off as a fevered race through the dualism of man. One minute D-503 craves peace and happiness and is willing to surrender himself to something greater in return for a guarantee of this, but the next he revels in emotion, freedom, and the complexity of experience that I-330 opens up for him. He cycles between the two like a man with influenza, hot one moment, cold another, unable to reconcile the two states of being in one body. This is, therefore, a book that should be devoured in one sitting if at all possible in order to heighten the feeling of speed, and to underline the swings between the desire for submission and the desire for freedom that have been so carefully crafted. This novel deserves to be better known outside of SF circles, and whilst it is perhaps not the easiest of reads due to it’s somewhat experimental modernist nature, it is closer to a present day novel than it is to Ulysses, and that alone should convince the wary reader that this is worth their time.