12 February 2011

We (Yevgeny Zamyatin)

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg

D-503, a mathematician, is tasked by the government to carry out the building of the Integral, a space ship intended for visiting other Earth-like planets and propagating the utopian philosophy of the One State. It is far into the future and we, the human race as we know it, are ancient history. After a long protracted war, the old race is replaced by a new bunch of "enlightened" human beings. In place of impulsive, passionate, artistic individuals of old are robot-like peoples labeled by numbers and whose upbringing, lifestyle, and sexual schedule are controlled by an authoritarian government. Independent thinking, freedom, and love are all taboo. Conformity and reason are considered the highest of virtues. Nicotine and alcohol are branded as "poisons" that make one incurably sick. Every action is taken to prevent anyone from "developing a soul" - a most feared disease. There are indications that an epidemic of soul-searching is taking hold of some numbers held astray by rebels. But at last, the scientists of the One State have a long awaited breakthrough. They have finally developed a cure for the disease. A new medical procedure now makes it possible to exterminate the imagination. All numbers are now invited to undergo operation.

There is no doubt as to why this novel alarmed the Russian Stalinist government and their puppets and why it took a long time to be published. With a thinly disguised story decrying the repression of individual liberties and imagination, it could only be subversive and damaging to totalitarian states. The scientific methods applied to silence the "sick" citizens of the One State are akin to the purging of the rebellious minority in society, of the dissenters to totalitarian regimes, and of entire races by self-declared superior races. A great achievement of this piece of science fiction, written in 1921 and first published as a book in Russia only in 1952, is its ability to anticipate the political events in Russia (then and now) and in governments elsewhere, the methods by which freedoms are curtailed, and the inevitability and constancy of revolutions.

One can't deny that We is visionary. It's a breezy read too. A novel with state of the art special effects.


  1. A seminal novel influencing Huxley's writing of 'Brave New World'. I interpreted it's meaning as stating that totalitarianism can never dominate and conquer human nature due to the inability of the State to completely control human love and sexuality. But agreed a book to make the soviet authorities sweat, but not too much as eventually published in 1952.

  2. I'm not a huge fan of science fiction, Rise, but something about this book sounded appealing from the beginning and it kept sounding better as your review went on. Where did you first hear about this one anyway? Is Zamyatin a big name in the field?

  3. Kevin, a good interpretation. Let me add to that, the inability of humans to let go of their humanities, emotions, and freedoms. All it takes is a trigger. The book was actually published earlier in some magazines. Enough for Zamyatin to be persecuted out of the country.

    Richard, SF is also not my favored genre. But this is a fine one, I think. Zamyatin is revered in the genre. I first heard of the book from friends, in a group reading of Huxley's Brave New World. This book, Brave New World, and Orwell's 1984 are supposed to be the Big 3 in dystopian fiction.