The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)

WeYevgeny Zamyatin wrote We in 1921 but it was first published in English translation in 1924. While he wrote many science fiction and satirical works, this dystopian far future tale is perhaps his most famous. This was my second reading, although I recall little about the first, other than it was a tough read.

I read the 1993 edition from Penguin, translated by Clarence Brown. As usual, I ignored the introduction and notes.

Before We was published most of the science fiction (with the exception of Wells, Shelley and one or two others) represented the utopian genre, to a greater or lesser extent. Most of those were generally unsuccessful in terms of a novel or story. There are not many examples of genuine full-on dystopia up to this point.

We is the story – and it is a proper story – of D-503. He lives a thousand years after OneState took over world government. The human population is not what it was. He is chief engineer on a project to build the mysterious INTEGRAL, and he writes a journal to record the process. All inhabitants live in a glass apartment and are watched by the Bureau of Guardians. D has an assigned lover (O-90) and they live their lives (work, recreation, etc) to precise prescribed timings. O is too short for reproduction which causes her anguish. O is allowed another partner, who is D’s friend, and state poet R-13. D meets I-330, a woman who appears to defy the OneState (she smokes, drinks and flirts with D). Flirtation is not allowed – applications for sex firsts must be pre-approved. The influence of I on D slowly infects his life and before long, he is unsure of his place in the new world. He begins to dream – a sign of mental illness in this future. His relationships with both O and I begin to alter. As each record in the journal maps his descent into chaos, they become increasing erratic.

There are complexities to this story not previous found in genre fiction. Despite this, I failed to engage with the characters. Not for any real reason I can put my finger on. The characters seemed to be driven by real motivations within the world that Zamyatin creates. I was hoping that D would become more heroic, rather than being more confused by events that seem to occur to him – although his reactions are probably more realistic than in traditional fiction. His world crumbles and he can’t necessarily cope, never mind comprehend. He appears to have little agency, despite his high position in the OneState. The character of I plays the part of a noir-ish femme fatale type, which I liked.

The chapters are presented as records and as befitting a journal, are short and punchy. There is no long exposition explaining this future world. Unlike previous utopian fiction, there’s not the tedious chapter on religion, chapter on sexuality, chapter on economics, chapter on education, etc. Instead, we learn about the future thanks to the actions of the characters as they progress the story along. Some concepts and world-building are described in terms of maths and physics, which is completely in-keeping with D’s character. Zamyatin gives D a very descriptive style in his writing. He uses this trope to give the other characters their physical and emotional characteristics. I imagine, however, that in a far future dystopia, the art of description might not be so common – even the poet uses mechanical means for his creation.

There are references to our world, our existence, throughout. We are called the ancients. We are criticised for our chaotic existence and our principle of equality and “idiotic language”. Perhaps Zamyatin didn’t enjoy living in post-revolution Russia? He makes some interesting arguments, comparing life to physics: paraphrasing…when something’s velocity is zero it’s no longer in motion, and therefore “when a man’s freedom is reduced to zero, he commits no crimes”. Bit of a leap in logic?

Is a socialist utopia and a dystopia the same thing? D enjoys being controlled by OneState, although he doesn’t like the idea of being emotionally controlled by I. In this future, humans appear to have lost their souls, but they are happy enough – if a soul-less being can experience happiness. After all, D belongs to the OneState’s ‘we’ and doesn’t want the concept of the individual self, or I. Zamyatin suggests that a soul is needed for a person to fly, to have imagination. Imagination needs to be cured. This is the true cost of the dystopian model. Take away a soul and a person is a functioning machine. When you introduce (through the character of I, and I assume the deliberate delegation of the letter I) emotion and imagination, the machine (D) fails in its function. When one part of the OneState machine fails, does it all fail? It is almost a mathematical equation…

I suspect that if I knew more about Zamyatin’s life, political disposition and Russian history, I might be able to read more in the book’s subtext. However, what I took from We is that personal freedom should never be threatened, no matter the perceived benefits by the state.

Zamyatin’s We is a smart piece of literature and proper storytelling. It follows its own internal logic and is therefore proper science fiction. Proper dystopia. The first truly successful novel of this genre, where characters grow and change and the narrative works. Despite my lack of engagement – which comes down to my individual tastes rather than a flaw in the writing, storytelling, characters or imagination of Zamyatin – this is a terrific and important novel. (Or course, many of the ideas within are later found in Brave New World and 1984 amongst others).

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