Shawn's Reviews > We

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
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's review
May 12, 11

bookshelves: read-lit, read-do-not-own, read-sci-fi
Read from April 16 to May 09, 2011

So, I was reading through my list of Zamyatin stories and thought, "well, here's a chance to get the one novel out of the way".

Famous for being the first "dystopian" novel, mentally this brings to mind images of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS (*although I especially appreciated the Bruce Sterling's introduction suggestion to envision the characters in Soviet Constructivist Art-era costumes* - worked a treat!). The idea is pretty easy to grasp - a "projecto ad absurdum" of Communist worker agit-prop into the far future (1000 years, in fact) - a future in which the One-State rules all, and all "ciphers" live by mathematical and logically precise conceptions - mere cogs in a single unit of "We" (but if there is a "We", who can "They" be?) serving the glorious one state in synchronized harmony, even if pesky human failings still rise up and get in the way every once in a while.

It's Zamyatin's satire of Soviet Russia's inhuman, anti-freedom practices, narrated to you as a memoir written by the chief architect of the Integral, the new worker-built spaceship that will soon launch and integrate the infinite equation of the universe with the yoke of reason ("Taming a wild zig-zag along a tangent towards the asymptote into a straight line" - it's like Darkseid's anti-life equation, for all you Kirby NEW GOD fans) - its belly full of writings to propagandize new, unruly worlds. But our "hero", D-503, is having problems, you see....

This was an interesting read - I'm not a big sci-fi fan but I can dig the historical stuff that's not written "in the genre". I;m sure oceans have been written about it already, not the least of all its effect on George Orwell. It's interesting because WE is a bit more fantastical than 1984, more given to flights of fantasy in its conception of a regimented future than the more serious, "realistic" Orwell text. Life in WE is ruled by geometry and equations - and D-503 is haunted by nightmares of the root of negative one, which is impossible....

Some minor points I found interesting: I liked the structure of the early satire, where D-503 presents his everyday, realistic life of future horrors and wonders in a blase narrative form. Since I'm a fan of the Futurist art movement, I liked the echoes of Futurism you can see here (although this was more about precise mathematics and science/logic, where Futurism was about brute energy and powerful force lines). It's interesting to see (in our modern world of dumbed-down, dualistic thinking) that Zamyatin's stinging satire not only strikes his obvious target, but seeks to critique the opposite number as well (organized religion's stupidities are slyly exposed, and one realizes that the inhuman regimentation of human workers, literally trained to work like machines following the process instigated by F.W. Taylor, was not only supported by the Russians but found a huge fan in the uber-Capitalist Henry Ford - the more things change...). The citizens of the One-State live in a panopticon, only allowed privacy on their pre-approved sex-hour (free love is another bonus of the future - you can sleep with anyone you'd like and no one is allowed to turn you down, or you turn anyone else down, of course). There's mathematical music (I couldn't help thinking of Basic Channel minimalist Techno), propaganda poetry and A Table of The Hours, a schedule that organizes all time efficiently (there's a wonderful bit where D-503 waxes rhapsodic over the "ancient literary legacy" of train schedules: "who is not made breathless when racing and tumbling through the pages of the schedule?"). In fact, the past seems to hold a subtle fascination for these perfectly balanced citizens of the future. And D-503 is still worried about his ugly, monkey hands....

The story moves through our main character's "unreasonable" fascination with I-330, a strange female who seems to flaunt her dislike of the status quo, occasionally smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. This drives a wedge between D and his frequent female companion 0-90. But D's investigation of I leads to further discoveries, including what really exists outside the Great Wall that separates the One State from the blasted wasteland (this sequence was particularly strong), the State's new operation which will insure happiness by surgically excising the imagination, and the existence of a rapidly forming underground movement committed to an outmoded and unlikely concept called "freedom". It may meander a bit at the 3/4 mark but the ending is very strong, as D-503 finally understands true happiness and why "reason should win."

Well worth your time.
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Quotes Shawn Liked

Yevgeny Zamyatin
“But you can't plead with autumn. No. The midnight wind stalked through the woods, hooted to frighten you, swept everything away for the approaching winter, whirled the leaves. ("The North")”
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We

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