I remember my first experience with a work of dystopian fiction. It actually wasn’t a book but rather Terry Gilliam’s extraordinary film Brazil. If you’ve never experienced this director, I strongly urge you to check out some of his films as visually they’re quite stunning with a style unlike anything else. Brazil left a lasting impression on my young mind that led me to seek out other artists’ visions of the future. From classics such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 to more modern works such as The Hunger Games trilogy, it seems as though the world cannot get enough of the dystopian genre which often comes eerily close to our own possible future. Rather than revisit Orwell and the world ruled by Big Brother, I decided to check out an earlier work that had tremendous influence on this particular genre. While I wouldn’t rank We as a favorite, it was a fascinating look into a work that would serve as an inspiration on writers such as Orwell.
Following a horrific war that lasted two centuries, society has been organized into a massive city known as OneState. Ruled under a leader known as the Benefactor, citizens are given numbers rather than names with daily activities rigidly organized. The secret to happiness has been found in the discipline of mathematics so schedules are made for work, sleep, personal time, and even sex. Citizens live inside glass houses so that everyone can be seen (they can close the blinds during sex hour) while an impenetrable wall has been erected around the city in order to keep everyone safe (wonder who paid for that). Scientists are hard at work on developing a cure for the condition known as “imagination” while those that are unable to achieve happiness are mercifully put to public execution. While there is an annual election to vote for the continual rule of the Benefactor, everyone is expected to vote yes. After all, only someone deranged would vote no to happiness.
The narrator of We is D-503, a mathematician working on a rocket in order to promote the perfection of OneState to other worlds. The story is a collection of D-503’s journal entries, which he has started writing in order to put them on the rocket to share the glorious message of OneState. However, our narrator is about to come up against some quite monumental struggles after meeting a woman unlike any he has ever met. Soon, D-503 begins to question if OneState’s message of happiness is all it’s cracked up to be.
Zamyatin has created a very in-depth world, and the story behind We is almost as fascinating as the novel itself. Written in 1921, it was suppressed by the Soviet Union and had to be smuggled out of the country to be published abroad. It wasn’t until the late 80s that it was finally published in Russia. Considering the author’s views on dictatorship, this comes as no surprise. There are several great ideas in this novel, from the glass city to the ridiculous election process to the “pink tickets” one has to get if they would like to have sex with someone. Although written based on the author’s own experiences with a dictatorship, I think the novel could definitely transcend time as a frightening look at problems we are all too familiar with when it comes to government rule.
The writing style sets this book apart from other dystopian fiction I’ve read. Many passages often feel more like poetry than prose, with several events that are dreamlike to accentuate the internal struggles occurring with its narrator. The author throws you headfirst into the story, and it takes some time to understand the dynamics of this twisted world. Often, it feels more like looking at an abstract painting, a series of images rather than a collective whole. Zamyatin manages to make you feel as though you are going mad as our narrator struggles with whether to be a part of the collective or his own individual person. Mathematics play a huge role in the storytelling, as characters are often perceived by D-503 as a collection of shapes: his friend R-13 is known for his thick, spitting lips; his girlfriend O-90 as a collection of circles; and his love interest, I-330, is all straight lines and sharp edges.
Typically, I avoid spoilers in my reviews at all costs. However, my final comment on the novel does give the ending away. Please stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled.
I find it fascinating how the genre of dystopian fiction has changed over the years. We, much like the later 1984, has a very downbeat ending. Although that spark of hope remains as rebels will continue to fight the system, I felt sad that D had to return as one of the mindless herd. I don’t think you can get away with an ending like that in today’s fiction. Perhaps I’m incorrect in that assessment, so please feel free to correct me in the comments. We is a fascinating read, especially if you like 1984 or Brave New World. It is a great example of how relevant classic science fiction can be to our modern world.