reviewed by Zeke Teflon
Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) was already a twice-exiled (to Siberia) “old Bolshevik” when the Russian revolution broke out in 1917, even though he was only 33 at the time. He was also one of the first Bolsheviks to understand the totalitarian nightmare the Soviet Union was to become.
Remarkably, he understood this in the first years after the revolution, in 1920/1921. Even though anarchists and members of the Social Revolutionary Party had understood this even earlier on, those in the privileged class–the Bolsheviks–almost universally didn’t. Except Zamyatin, who projected his fears in the form of science fiction.
We was the first novel proscribed (in 1921) by Communist Party censors, though it was published in English three years later by Dutton in the U.S. Shortly after that, the CP censors proscribed all of Zamyatin’s works. In 1931, probably thanks to his friendship with Maxim Gorky, Zemyatin approached Stalin and remarkably was allowed to self-exile, rather than being murdered or sent to a gulag by Stalin. Zamyatin ended up in Paris and died there in 1937.
As for the novel itself, We is not typical of sci-fi books of the Gernsback era — which for the most part were horribly written “gee whiz!” stories about the technological wonders to come, or pulp Westerns set in space. Rather, it falls into two much more modern science fiction categories: social science fiction (concerned with social and political trends) and dystopian science fiction (concerned with the downfall of civilization and its aftermath).
We is set in the far future, in the wake of a 200-year war in which over 99% of humanity died. The specific setting is an enclosed city (“OneState”) which is the sole outpost of technological civilization, and which is a tightly regimented, totalitarian society under the thumb of a dictator (“Benefactor”–always capitalized) and his thugs (“Guardians”–again, always capitalized).
The story itself concerns one of the city’s citizens (“Numbers”), D-503, the head designer of “The Integral,” OneState’s first spaceship, his attempted recruitment by a resistance movement, and the results of that attempted recruitment.
The resistance movement is possible because, unlike in 1984, surveillance is not all pervasive. It’s close, but not all pervasive, as there are no omnipresent TV cameras and listening devices. Instead of cameras and microphones, OneState relies upon Numbers informing on each other, having all buildings made of specially toughened transparent glass, and cradle-to-grave indoctrination. Given how early this novel was written, the relative looseness of the surveillance system is quite understandable.
The other aspects of the novel bearing on technology are the weakest part of We. Zamyatin was no scientist, and even for the time his grasp of science was weak. The descriptions of The Integral, the spaceship, for example, are ludicrous. But one shouldn’t make too much of this. We is social and political projection, not a technological tale.
And there, Zemyatin was remarkably prescient. The political/social developments described in We largely came to pass in short order in the Soviet Union: a dictator with a pervasive personality cult; the use of euphemistic propaganda terms to disguise the nature of the dictatorship; mass surveillance; mass informing by citizens, one upon the other; state control of all means of communication; execution of dissidents; and constant indoctrination to produce “Numbers” who participate in their own oppression.
Another very strong point of We is the narration. Once you get past the nearly unreadable first two pages, concerning The Integral and written in the third person, the remainder of the narrative is written in the first person by D-503 and is poetic and haunting. It’s a remarkable psychological self-description; it chronicles D-503’s well ordered world being up ended by the resistance member who tries to recruit him, and the turmoil her new ideas bring as they challenge his indoctrination. It’s a sad and revealing self-portrait, and a very good illustration of the psychological results of indoctrination.
We‘s strengths far outweigh it’s weaknesses. It’s a great dystopian novel and is still well worth reading for both students of history and students of science fiction.
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Those interested in the devolution of the Russian Revolution to “communist” tyranny–during which time Zamyatin wrote We–should see the following: Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (now part of the AK Press Brinton collection, For Workers’ Power); My Disillusionment in Russia, by Emma Goldman; My Further Disillusionment in Russia, by Emma Goldman; The Bolshevik Myth, by Alexander Berkman; The Unknown Revolution 1917-1921, by Voline (E.K. Eichenbaum); and The Guillotine at Work: The Leninist Counter-Revolution, by G.P. Maximoff.
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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.