Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Written on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution, Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote We, a novel whose social prescience astounds. In the same way that Brave New World depicts a society that seems to have mostly come true as a result of mass consumer culture, Zamyatin's We depicts a society eerily similar to the autocratic, communistic world of Soviet Russia.
In the One State there are no people, only numbers. All structures have glass walls, so that everyone can see everything everyone else does. Nature has been utterly subjugated, and what remains of it is cordoned off behind the Green Wall. Science rules, and mathematical-philosophy dictates society's mores. Control is so omnipresent, that an individual's daily activities are governed by the Table of Hours. With humanity on the eve of its space age, all that remains is for mankind to reach to the stars and impose its glorious order upon whatever creatures it finds beyond.
D-503 is the chief architect of the One State's first spaceship, the Integral. For the benefit of historians and the species that will be subjugated to mathematical-philosophy, D-503 decides to record a journal of thoughts in the days leading up to the Integral's launch. However, a chance encounter with I-330 causes D-503 to discover the existence of a world within himself, the presence of the ancient disease that the One State thought they had stomped out: the human soul.
The dystopian novels of the twentieth century that get the most attention in the United States are Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. I have never heard of We being assigned reading in an American high school, and that's too bad, as it is probably far more approachable for teenagers than either Orwell or Huxley. 1984 is, in that regard, problematic in that we have largely avoided the dilemma it describes, leaving a younger person to wonder what all the fuss is about, and Brave New World, I imagine, if I'd read it as a teenager, would have left entirely the wrong impression. I imagine my teenage self finishing Brave New World and thinking something to the effect of, "Huh. No pain or suffering, people are always entertained, and sex is easy. Sign me up."
We, on the other hand, is frighteningly accurate in its depictions how the modern world imposes social control both through rigid hierarchies and a culture of pacification and ego-gratification. I found the intimacy that the reader must maintain with the protagonist D-503 through his journal entries is also more chilling in We than in either 1984 or Brave New World. The reader must watch as D-503's perspective on his world slowly strays from One State dogma and must reconcile the presence of his inner world with the horrific world around him. He must come to realize that horror, painfully, bit by bit, and the reader must cope with every transition along with him. Even my younger self would have had a hard time writing that off.
I highly recommend We. The characterization, world building, and pacing alone make that much easy, but there is so much more here—a powerful and poignant critique on modernity and the all-too-human drive to “order” the less desirable parts of our humanity out of ourselves.