Book Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

We is a Russian novel first published in the 1920s in New York (Banned in its home country, it wasn’t published in Russia until 1988!). I wanted to read this book because it’s the prototype around which 1984 (admittedly) and Brave New World (allegedly) were modeled. In both cases, the similarities are clear, but each of the three novels has its own take on the dystopian theme of collective versus individual. This review contains some, but not all, spoilers.

In We, the protagonist is known as D-503 (all citizens are referred to as a number; in fact, all people are simply called “Numbers.” The novel takes place in the far future (there is a historical event referred to as the Two Hundred Years War, which allowed the “final revolution” to take place, resulting in the current society). D-503 is working on a spaceship called the Integral. One State hopes to send this probe into space to spread the perfect society that One State has become.

The civilization in One State is surrounded by glass. Most buildings are made of glass, allowing Numbers to see what other Numbers are doing. The civilization itself is surrounded by a glass wall that filters sun and blocks bad weather. The point is: everything is predicted and prescribed. Numbers have a “table” that tells them what they must do at each given hour of the day. During the prescribed time for walking, they walk side-by-side—like lock-step robots.

The Benefactor is the “Big Brother” character in this novel. It’s shown that he executes those who displease him by rebelling against the state (they’re executed by being placed in a dome until they suffocate). There are poets, but their role is to write poetry for state-sanctioned occasions. D-503’s friend, for example, is a poet who primarily writes poetry to be read at Executions.

The book is told through a journal D-503 is writing. It’s clear that Orwell took this as inspiration: Winston is writing in a journal in 1984, writing to a group of people who are freer than he. Similarly, D-503 is writing to a civilization that seems to be us, today—one who doesn’t understand the strange, regulated practices of One State. His journals make much use of mathematical metaphor, so if you are rusty on math (like I am), you should brush up. For instance, D-503 is bothered by the concept of imaginary numbers (I can sympathize with him on that one—math started making no sense to me at that point in my studies!). He is also bothered—but strangely fascinated, it seems—by anything beyond the norm. For instance, D-503 claims that he has hairy hands, and this bothers him immensely. He also notices a man named S, who is curved like an S, and a woman whose face has fish-like features. This becomes important later.

Though most things are made of glass, Numbers may request permission to engage in sex with other Numbers. This is to prevent jealousy–the whole point of this society is for everything to be ordered and controlled. Unknown variables are feared. Any Number may request any other Number, so Numbers may have multiple partners; D-503 does. O-90 is his lover and begs for him to impregnate her (illegally) so she can have a(n unsanctioned) child. He complies and later helps her try to retain custody of her baby, despite his “brain” telling him he should not be crossing One State.

He also meets a rebellious woman named I-330. I-330 introduces him to an ancient house (like the antique shop in 1984). This house is unique in that it has actual walls—not glass. It houses artifacts of the past and is watched over by an ancient Number. We come to learn that the ancient house contains a way to enter the area beyond the glass walls. D-503 eventually has an affair with (and becomes madly in love/obsessed with) I-330 and enters this area, finding a group of people who seem to be covered in fur. These are rebels—relatively “free” people who live life their own way. Once again, D-503 is strangely fascinated and horrified by them. He joins them for a time and plots ways to use the INTEGRAL to help them and their cause.

Still, D-503’s journal entries show that he is torn. He realizes he is contradicting One State. He keeps telling himself he is sick—he even visits a doctor who tells him he is afflicted with having a “soul.” D-503 continues to document his “madness” in hopes that his readers will fully understand what he is going through. Soon, One State clears out all the auditoriums to make room for operating tables. The State has discovered a way to essentially lobotomize part of the human brain (using X-rays) in order to kill the imagination.

Big spoiler. D-503 is eventually caught by the Benefactor. He confesses everything and undergoes the operation, thereby “healing” himself of his imagination and soul. I-330, however, will not confess or break down at all, despite the Benefactor’s attempts at torturing her. Once again, the pessimistic ending (the victory of the state over the individual) and the use of torture is echoed in 1984.

All hope is not lost, however. For instance, at one point birds re-enter the glass city, and it’s implied that the State will not be able to continue on forever. Once again, math is used as a metaphor. Though the people have been told that the Two Hundred Years War allowed for the final revolution, they realize that in math, there is no such thing as a final number: numbers are infinite, so there can be no final revolution. In other words, there is always hope. That was my favorite message in the otherwise grim book.

The other part of this book I found fascinating is how the Benefactor made a stark comparison between religion—Christianity specifically—and his own rule. I’m not anti-religion by any means, but I have always been fascinated with how “bad” people through history have tried to use religion to manipulate and control others. In this case, the Benefactor explains that in religion, people like the idea of a decisive, vengeful God. They like to know that there are definite rules and definite consequences. This is logical. He notes that it is human nature to want to give up control to such a higher power. He, like Big Brother, is simply taking the place of that higher power. It is his job to run One State with specific rules, and it is his job to execute people who fail to obey. This is similar to 1984. In the end, Winston is made to realize that he loves Big Brother, and that all his unhappiness prior to his “epiphany” was simply caused by the fact that he was wrong—and didn’t put blind faith in what Big Brother told him, that sometimes, black is white.

Although I am glad I read this novel, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I liked 1984. I do see where Orwell (admittedly) took his inspiration, but I thought 1984 was much easier to relate to, and character motives are just a bit easier to understand. 1984, I thought, was much more terrifying, taking the ideas of We to a more disturbing level. In We, I at least got the impression that there was a reason behind the Benefactor’s desire to impose strict rules on everyone. It seemed One State truly did want to impose order for the benefit of all (the consequences were still terrible). In 1984, it seems that those in the Inner Party simply want to have power because they can. The results are the same, though, regardless of the motive. This is only my first read-through of the We, so I plan to read it again in a few months to see what else I can pick up on.

I read this book as part of my dystopia kick, along with 1984, Atlas Shrugged, and Brave New World. I also plan on reading The Iron Heel. If you have any other classic dystopias to recommend, please leave me a comment or send me an email. I’m fascinated by people’s imaginings (and their real-life inspirations) about our future and the ways in which we might harm ourselves. I also like to see author’s opinions on whether—and how—we will be able to overcome our self-destructive tendencies and start over. In We, I was particularly fascinated with the beast-like tendencies of the people beyond the wall. Reason seemed to be an enemy in this book.