Margaret Atwood’s cover blurb calls Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We “the best single work of science fiction yet written,” and who am I to argue? It was one of those books that made me feel inadequate as a reader; though I think I understood most of it on a basic level, much of the time it seemed to be also operating on another level that remained beyond my grasp. And though it can certainly be classified as sci-fi, there was a transcendental quality to it that we don’t normally associate with the genre.
Really, We is a hard book to describe. Probably the most familiar comparison would be to 1984, which was written almost 30 years later and borrowed more than a little from We, as did Brave New World. Its protagonist is a rocket designer who lives in the One State, which is a thinly disguised projection into the future of the Soviet Union. Zamyatin had been a Bolshevik but quickly became disillusioned; in her introduction Atwood says:
The original communal committees were becoming mere rubber-stampers for the power elite that had emerged under Lenin and would be solidified by Stalin. Was this equality? Was this the flowering of the individual’s gifts and talents that had been so romantically proposed by the earlier Party?
In his 1921 essay “I Am Afraid,” Zamyatin said: “True literature can exist only when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics.”
We was quickly banned in the USSR and Zamyatin went into exile; it was published in English, French, and Czech in the 1920s, but not in Russian until 1988. George Orwell reviewed an early English version in 1946, in an essay included in the book I have. He is surprisingly ambivalent about it, given how much he took from it, saying “it is not a book of the first order, but certainly an unusual one.” Maybe it’s sort of like how late-60s rock stars didn’t like to acknowledge Dylan — when the influence is too deep, it makes things awkward.
I could go on at length here, but I think I’ll cut to the chase and say: You should read We. It’s challenging, but on a sentence-by-sentence level, fascinating and occasionally mind-blowing. (It’s pretty short too.) I’d love to hear what you think.
Here are a few passages I marked, with brief commentary. Perhaps they will whet the appetite.
THE GLORIOUS, HISTORIC HOUR WHEN THE FIRST-EVER INTEGRAL WILL BLAST OFF INTO OUTER SPACE IS NIGH. SOME THOUSAND YEARS AGO, YOUR HERO ANCESTORS VICTORIOUSLY SUBJUGATED ALL OF EARTH TO THE ONE STATE. YOUR CONQUEST WILL BE EVEN GREATER, FOR YOU WILL INTEGRATE THE INFINITE EQUATION OF THE UNIVERSE WITH THE ELECTRIC, FIRE-BREATHING POWER OF OUR GLASS INTEGRAL. YOU WILL ENCOUNTER UNFAMILIAR BEINGS ON ALIEN PLANETS WHO MAY YET LIVE IN SAVAGE STATES OF FREEDOM, AND YOU WILL SUBJUGATE THEM TO THE BENEFICENT YOKE OF REASON. IF THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND THAT WHAT WE BRING THEM IS MATHEMATICALLY INFALLIBLE HAPPINESS, WE WILL BE IMPELLED TO FORCE THEM TO BE HAPPY.
“Savage states of freedom”… I love that. Would make a great album title.
What do you mean no reason? And what an idea — talking to me as though I am only somebody’s shadow. Maybe all of you are my shadows. Wasn’t I the one who populated these pages, which were so recently blank, white rectangular deserts, filling them up with all of you? If it weren’t for me, would the readers I’ll lead down the narrow path of these lines ever know you?
I’m reminded of the protesters in China who have been holding up blank sheets of paper. Says the NYT, “‘People have a common message,’ said Xiao Qiang, a researcher on internet freedom at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘They know what they want to express, and authorities know too, so people don’t need to say anything. If you hold a blank sheet, then everyone knows what you mean.’”
“Now I love children a lot, and I firmly believe that the most difficult and noble kind of love is cruelty.”
I’d like to have that on a needlepoint sampler.
“A person is like a novel: you never know how they’re going to end up until the very last page. Or else it wouldn’t be worth reading…”
Now that’s a quotable quote if ever I saw one.
“My darling, you’re a mathematician. Moreover, you’re a philosopher of mathematics. Tell me: what is the final number?”
“What do you mean? I… I don’t understand: what final number?”
“I mean the last one, the biggest, the highest.”
“But I, that’s a ridiculous question. If the number of numbers is infinite, how could there possibly be a final number?”
“Right. Then what final revolution are you talking about? There is no final revolution. Revolutions are infinite. Finality is for children: children are scared of infinity and it’s very important that children can sleep at night….”