"No less a critic than C. S. Lewis has described the ravenous addiction that these magazines inspired; the same phenomenon has led me to call science fiction the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug." Arthur C. Clarke

Zamyatin’s WE

I have just finished reading Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We, one of the forerunners of the satirical dystopian genre best known for novels such as Brave New World or 1984.  It was written in 1921 in response to Zamyatin’s experiences with the revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917 as well as working at the Tyne shipyards where he witnessed the collectivization of labor.

Having read Orwell and Huxley, I certainly saw the influence We had, admitted or otherwise.  Zamyatin’s secret police simply see everything because all walls are made of glass and sex is state-controlled along with every other part of life, including labor along the lines of the ideas of F.W. Taylor.  Emotion and imagination are considered the enemies of happiness and are considered illegal.  The novel is one of the first examples of a post-apocalyptic landscape with the cause implied as weapons of mass destruction; clearly atomic weapons did not exist in 1921, but having experienced the Great War, Zamyatin couldn’t fail to see the growth in size of bombs and other weapons.


WE (Photo credit: Père Ubu)

Zamyatin’s primary judgment regarding the State of the novel (and the early Soviet Union of Lenin) is that state-controlled, emotionless, beauty-less life works against human nature.  His viewpoint character, named D-503, believes himself mad because he has night dreams, feels attracted to a very rebellious woman (I-330), and can’t bring himself to report her and her revolutionary organization (Mephi).  Even as he smuggles his lover and her unborn child out of the city illegally, his mind shifts irrationally between his basic human instincts and his “love” for the United State.  One of the most impressive ways in which the author illustrates this is through the use of numbers: D-503, as a scientist/mathematician, thinks of everything in terms of numbers.  The spaceship he is building is called the Integral and thinks of unknowns as variables and love and death as functions.  What sets off his paranoia regarding his mental health is the concept of “imaginary numbers,” i.e. the square root of -1.  He knows such a number must exist, because all integers have square roots, but it is entirely unknown.  This is the first inkling he gets of “imagination.”  While these mathematical concepts aren’t exactly kosher to mathematicians, when thought of abstractly they are very artistic, and help to visualize Zamyatin’s idea that life cannot be made entirely rational, by any higher power.

I won’t give away the ending (though it is remarkably similar to 1984), but seeing it as a precursor to it’s more famous genre comrades gave a much more impressive light.  It certainly has it’s shortcomings (it breaks nearly all the writing rules I was taught in my PW classes), but as a pure work of art it is still one of the most important pieces of fiction of the twentieth century.

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One response

  1. A wonderful review of a great book. I also recommend Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908) — which is considered the “earliest” modern dystopia….

    February 21, 2014 at 6:49 pm

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