An older and briefer review this time. This review of Mirra Ginsburg’s translation of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin was first published in Vector 209, January-February 2000:
You’ve read this before. Remember how, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), the wilderness represented a threatening contrast to the orderliness of the city? It’s there in We when, thrillingly, chaotically, the primitive jungle bursts through the city’s glass wall. Remember how, in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), a peaceful, obedient apparatchik of the state is driven by love to question Big Brother’s regime but in the end falls victim to its inescapable powers and is rendered passive? It’s there in We when D-503 meets the beautiful I-330 and finds himself unwittingly questioning the all-powerful state he has loved throughout his life, until finally the Benefactor crushingly re-imposes the state’s authority, leaving D-503 effectively lobotomised. Remember Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ (1973)? Remember Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes (1971)? Remember the film THX1138 (1971)? In fact, remember virtually any major dystopian writing of the last 75 years or so, and you are likely to find some trace of We threading inextricably through it. Zamyatin’s novel has good and deserved claim to be the most influential science fiction novel written this century. 1984 in particular picks up its mood, many of its tropes, even a handful of its episodes.
Yevgeny Zamyatin was a natural rebel. The son of an Orthodox priest in a prosperous provincial town in Tsarist Russia, he joined the Bolsheviks when he went to University in St Petersburg and during the revolution of 1905 he was arrested and sent into exile. In 1913 he was permitted to return to his studies in St Petersburg, and that same year his first novella was published. His second, ‘At The World’s End’, published in 1914, was such a scathing satire on the Tsarist army that he was brought to trial again. Yet when the Russian Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power, Zamyatin continued to snipe at authority, as his translator, Mirra Ginsburg, says in a fine introduction, his credo was ‘the need for heresy, the right to say “no” to official dogma’. That is the spirit which informs his masterpiece, the brittle, jesting satire on the Soviet regime, We, which was written in 1920-21 but which was refused publication in the Soviet Union. Translations did appear, however, in England in 1924 and in Czechoslovakia in 1927, paving the way for the wealth of dystopian fiction that followed in its wake.
Set in the distant future, We tells of an all-powerful State where everyone lives in glass houses, where, literally, every action is open to scrutiny by the Guardians. The novel takes the form of the diary of D-503, an engineer in charge of building the first rocket ship, which is destined to carry the benevolence of the Benefactor to any other beings that might be on other worlds. But when he meets I-330, D-503 finds his easy obedience to the enforced rhythms of daily life begins to slip. Uncomfortable questions start to come to mind, and other options are presented to him. The breaking down of his comfortable conformity is represented by the fractured language of his diary, broken sentences, bursts of curious imagery, start to intrude on the simple precision of his descriptions. In the end his moment of heresy, his expression of individuality and creativity, is crushed by the State. Yet even this is not so forbiddingly hopeless as Orwell’s vision, some streak of humanity might yet remain outside the glass walls of the city.
We is one of the most important works of science fiction written this century, and should be read for that reason. But it is also a gripping, humane and involving story told with extraordinary freshness and vigour, and it should be read also for the sheer pleasure it brings.