Monday, July 24, 2006

"We," by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The critic and poet Adam Hill recently reviewed the new translation of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review.

I used this novel in my comparative politics classes a few years back. In many ways it is very similar to Orwell's 1984, which should be no surprise since Orwell read and reviewed it years before publishing his more famous dystopia. (We was completed in 1921.) And it is arguably better written than 1984.

Readers familiar with Orwell are usually astonished by the obvious influence of Zamyatin's novel.

Hill deftly summarizes We:

"We" is set in the 26th century in the land of One State, a society enclosed in glass and ruled by the Benefactor. One State emerged after a war that lasted 200 years, and now all the citizens live under very rigid, authoritarian conditions that are meant to uphold and ensure their "mathematically infallible happiness." Stripped of their individual identities, the citizens of One State are referred to as "ciphers" and go by numbers rather than names. Every aspect of their lives, from sleep to sex, is regulated, and even their food has been reduced to a synthetic form rendered from petroleum. Freedom, even in thought, is considered deviant, and if the central authority decides against executing a cipher who has displayed an imagination, an operation is performed that will prevent any such future displays.

The novel's plot emerges from the records, or diary, of D-503, who is the story's main character and the builder of the Integral, a rocket ship designed with the purpose of interplanetary conquest. All of this might make "We" seem like a run-of-the-mill sci-fi story, but it's much more than that. As D-503 is seduced by the sexy I-330, he is drawn into a conspiracy led by rebels inside and outside One State. Eventually there is an attempted rebellion, but the most powerful rebellion is one that occurs in D-503 himself, as his true human nature is lured out of its prison of conformity and ignorance:

"I became glass. I saw into myself, inside.

"There were two of me. One me was the former, D-503, cipher D-503, but the other one…. Before, he only just managed to stick his shaggy paws out of my shell, but now he has crawled out whole, the shell is cracked open, now shattered into pieces and … and what next?"

D-503's records become a kind of confession, and his entries — often poetically charged — chart the emergence of an individual who feels guilty because his thoughts and actions are illegal but also exhilarated because of how good it feels to actually feel something and to do what one wants.

Click here to read Hill's review.

Click here to read an excerpt from We.

--Marshal Zeringue