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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Translated by Hugh Aplin

Hesperus Modern Voices 2009 (1927)
Trade Paperback with Flaps
212 pages
Classics; Science Fiction; Dystopian Fiction

A thousand years in our future, D-503 is just one number among many in the One State. The One State is a city, a society, that revolves not around the individual but around the collective we, like a hive, with the Benefactor in God-like status at the centre. D-503 works as a constructor on the Integral, the ship that will take their ideology and philosophy of life to other planets, to civilise and free other species. When an article in the State Gazette calls for poems, manifestos etc. to go in the ship, D-503 starts writing his Conspectus, a kind of diary that begins as his way of showing us what life is like in the One State.

A mathematician in a highly mathematical society, D-503 lives like everyone else, every day more or less the same, until he encounters I-330, a woman who brings out strong emotion in him, who scares and confounds him but who he becomes obsessed with. She leads him to the Ancient House, a remnant of long ago serving as a museum at the edge of the city, where the Wall keeps the jungle and wild things out of the pristine, perfect glass city.

As he tries to untangle and understand all the new sensations D is experiencing, he becomes unwittingly entangled in a revolt against the One State that, in this world where they have proven that the universe is finite, and where the One State is the perfected civilisation to end all wars and revolutions, can have only one ending.

If We sounds familiar to you, there’s a good reason for it. This is the powerful, hugely influential book credited with being the inspiration and influence behind both 1984 and Brave New World. In the introduction, translator Hugh Aplin explains that “Zamyatin’s vision of life in a technocratic future society was formed in part by his experiences in the North-East of England when he worked in the Newcastle shipyards during the First World War”; we tend to thoughtlessly or arrogantly assume that a dystopia like this is shamelessly based on Stalin’s Soviet Union. I’m sure, since Zamyatin lived there too, it had its impact, but we can sometimes forget that other places, places like England and America, had their own problems. (It doesn’t help that Animal Farm was an allegory of the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s dictatorship.)

This is a tricky book to read. I could read it a hundred times more and still feel like I’m not getting it all. It’s complex, but simple. Alienating, but readable. D-503’s narrative voice is unlike anything I’ve read before, that I can think of. He deteriorates into a man who sounds like he’s constantly high, tripping and paranoid at the same time. It’s not always easy to tell if something’s meant metaphorically or literally, and that did slow the story down for me. The usual cues and markers aren’t always there, and I have the feeling that the reading experience engenders a feeling pretty close to what D is feeling himself.

The truth is, as much as I enjoyed the story, there are too many clever things happening in this novel, both narratively and stylistically, and I would have to devote a month of my time doing concentrated reading and research, ideally in a university setting, to grasp even half of it. I barely have time to even write this review, which is a good week or so overdue. Some of the maths scared me off. D talks about Chaos and mathematical equations and leaves me behind. But there are other parts of his increasingly turbulent psyche that are fascinating and engrossing.

Some of the passages, some of D’s – or Zamyatin’s – descriptive prose is an absolute delight to read. It’s very visual, doesn’t always make sense, but quite unique.

The two of us walked as one. Somewhere far away through the mist the sun was barely audibly singing, everything was filling with the elastic and pearly, gold, pink and red. The whole world is one single, unbounded woman, and we’re right in her belly, we haven’t yet been born, we’re joyously ripening. And it’s clear to me, inviolably clear: everything is for me – the sun, the mist, the pink, the gold – it’s for me … (p66)

If you were told: your shadow can see you, can see you all the time? Do you understand? And then suddenly – you have a strange sensation: your arms are extraneous, they’re a hindrance, and I catch myself swinging my arms absurdly, out of time with my steps. Or suddenly – you have to look round without fail, but you can’t look round, not for anything, your neck’s enchained. And I run, run ever quicker, and I can feel with my back that the shadow’s following me quicker, and there’s nowhere, nowhere to escape from it … (p79)

The click of the annunciator. The whole of me flung itself into the narrow white slit – and … and some male (with a consonant) number I didn’t know. The lift hummed, slammed. Before me was a forehead rammed on carelessly and tilted to one side, while the eyes … a very strange impression, as though he were speaking from there, from under his brows, where the eyes are. (p100)

Thing is, it’s more interesting at this point to bring up the prose rather than the themes, because the themes are quite clear. They’re common to this kind of dystopian novel, and the addition of science fiction doesn’t really change that. If you were reading this for the first time as a teenager, say, or if you’d never had any exposure to dystopian worlds, the themes would be fascinating and mind-boggling. After all, it’s one of the reasons why I love this genre.

Themes of what happiness is, and what it involves and what it costs. Themes of individual need versus a collective good. Themes exploring the point of living and having a conscience, of what sets us apart from other creatures – and symbolism, lots of symbolism. The translator’s Introduction, as well as the Foreward by Alan Sillitoe, spells out a great deal of it, from the nature of the One States’ “elections” (everyone votes for the same person, the Benefactor, simply by raising their hand en masse) to I-330’s ego-centric letter “I”. It’s fun to play “spot the symbol” with We because there are so many – it’s laden with double-meanings, meanings only we can understand because of where and how we live, in the time period we live in.

This is a fantastic book for discussion – there’s so much going on, and so much to question and ponder and argue over. If you’re looking for a good edition of this modern classic, I highly recommend this one. Not that I’ve read any others, but I was very impressed with this particular one, especially as I’ve had a lot of misses with Russian translations.

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