It’s not often that you can grab a book free (legally so) from the Information Superhighway that is famous for having influenced Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, Ursula K. LeGuin, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, and Kurt Vonnegut. But you can – the magnificent “We” by Yevgeniy Zamyatin, an early 20th century dystopian novel that seems to spell out the road to post-Soviet Russia. It’s a pretty great read.
The book differs greatly from “1984” and “Brave New World” because it addresses its topics with a rather wry sense of humor. I hope Zamyatin had a good time writing this novel and inserting his inside jokes and nodding winks to the readers in the know, because the novel very well may have led to his ruin. It certainly was the impetus for his downfall in Russian literary society and his subsequent deracination to Paris, with the gentle assistance of Maksim Gorky.
“We” takes place in a world ruled by OneState, a thousand years after that body conquered every country on the entire planet. Everyone is assigned an alphanumeric designator, rather than a name, and our narrator, D-503, matter-of-factly points out the differences between his world and what we have come to know as our own. He brings up his world’s history and its unique style of government not because he is writing for an audience in the past (us), but because he is providing his account for the future readers – his journal will accompany the spaceship Integral (which D-503 is helping to develop) to other planets, which OneState plans to conquer.
D-503’s girlfriend (for lack of a better term), O-90, has been assigned to him by OneState to serve as his lover. Sex nights are pre-assigned affairs, largely passionless events which are viewed for the most part as a citizen’s duty. D-503 shares O-90 with another OneState citizen, R-13, who is a poet. R-13 performs his verse at public executions. A charming trio, these three.
Enter the mysterious I-330. I-330 is a female who appears to work very hard at flirting with D-503. She also engages in illegal activities – smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and possibly worst of all, invading D-503’s dreams (dreams are viewed as a sign of mental inferiority, so for obvious reasons, D-503 is mum on that account). We soon learn that I-330 is actually recruiting, as she is part of a revolutionary group hoping to overthrow OneState and re-introduce passion and humanity to OneState’s citizens. She leads D-503 to a city outside the Green Wall, which surrounds OneState, and introduces him to her organization, the Mephi.
Things become hectic in the final act, with O-90’s desire to become pregnant with D-503’s baby (another illegal activity, as O-90 is deemed too short and, therefore, unfit to carry a new OneState citizen) is fulfilled. A frantic effort to remove O-90 to the Mephi is undertaken, with D-503 at odds with his conscience, which tells him that the protection of OneState is the single constant in his life that he can rely on. Does he turn his back on O-90 and I-330? Does he rat the Mephi out to OneState? I’m not going to spoil the fun by revealing that – it’s worth picking up the book yourself and giving it a go.
Zamyatin seemed to be itching for a fight by writing this book. One would suppose that he felt the brand new Soviet Union’s leaders had a fanatic edge to them, hoping that they too could overthrow the rest of the world with their vision of a Metropolis-like worker state, but without the other side of Metropolis, the elite that are authorized access to the outside world. I enjoyed this book for a lot of reasons; in spite of its age, it seemed fresh (certainly, there are some rather clumsy translations out there that will sound awkward to the 21st century reader’s ear, but at times that can be part of the book’s charm).
Since Doc’s a translator himself, he would be remiss in not mentioning the translation of this work. I read a recent translation (2011) by Grover Gardner, who does just an excellent job turning the dialogue and gritty descriptions in this book into something fresh and fun. He explains in his preface that there are some serious differences between his choices of words and those of his predecessors who translated the book before him. Of note is his decision to name the Big Brother-like government OneState, rather than what had been used up to this point – United State. He felt that this was too close to United States (in fact, he rightly pointed out that, in reading the older versions, the mind fills in the last missing “s”), something that Gardner feels is not in keeping with the spirit of Zamyatin’s original text. Mistaking the Big Brother for the United States, rather than the intended Soviet Union, would be a disservice to his memory. There may be truth to this; all I know is that the book was translated with a level of grace and elegance that the book demanded.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a filthy diaper in a rest-stop parking lot, and 10 being a diamond tiara, Doc gives this awesome read a solid A-.
Here’s a link where you can grab your own free pdf of this book today. It’s an older translation, but still an excellent read.