I knew nothing of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We when I found it at the local library, other than the fact that it was one of the new arrivals in the science fiction section since my last visit. Turns out, this is one of the earliest examples of dystopian science fiction, predating more well-known novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. In fact, Orwell even acknowledged in a review of We that he was going to use it as a model for his next book, his aforementioned dystopian classic.
There can be no doubt, upon reading this novel, that Zamyatin’s story was quite influential on many of the darker storytelling souls within the genre’s literary pantheon. Tangentially, I have a strong belief that he found influence and inspiration in preceding tales, including the works of H.G. Wells, whose notions of the chaos that scientific advancement could cause morphed in Zamyatin’s mind to the chaos of failed mathematical control.
In Zamyatin’s future, equality is a mandate, individuality is not an option, and the human collective (in its significantly war-reduced numbers) runs in such precise mathematical form that names no longer exist (our protagonist is known simply as D-503) and every moment of every day occurs according to precisely timed intervals. Wake. Walk. Work. Eat. Celebrate. Assemble. Copulate. Sleep. All planned. All approved. All performed according to the One State.
“Mathematically infallible happiness.”
How could anything possibly go wrong in such an equation?
Zamyatin’s novel is a rebuke of many of the political and cultural happenings of his time, obviously, but his stark outlook on the results of those influences remain timely and relevant, nearly 100 years later. I’m honestly surprised that I had never heard of this novel before now and that it’s not nearly as well known as the previously mentioned novels that continue to show up on bestseller lists and required reading for students everywhere. Perhaps it’s because the previous translations of this novel have been unapproachable? I have read that some translations are not as engaging as the recent translation by Natasha Randall (which is the version I read). I had no problems with Randall’s efforts. I think, however, that Zamyatin’s style is a bit of an endurance test at times. That being said, it’s well worth it to make it through this novel, especially if you consider yourself a sci-fi connoisseur.
Final Verdict: I’m not sure. I feel as though, as a science fiction fan, that I should have this as part of my collection for its historical importance. Also, it is a compelling story, if a bit of a slog at times. I believe that I will at least add it to my wish list, for further contemplation. Prophets know that just because I add something to my wish list doesn’t mean that I’m going to be purchasing it any time soon. I have books on there that have been patiently waiting to be purchased for almost 10 years.