by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)
Astoundingly well-written, timely and thought-provoking. Out of the “Big Three” dystopias (along with Brave New World and 1984), Zamyatin’s has the best writing by far, though his story is not as engaging as Orwell’s. And for being highly similar in theme and premise, We blows Huxley’s vision out of the water in every respect.
It does seem that Zamyatin sacrificed plot for the sake of mood and style. “Fractured” is a word you will see often in reviews of this book, and it’s an appropriate description of D-503’s voice. The stylistic choice does well to convey the scattered, anxious existence he’s suffering as I-330 attempts to wrest him from his “happiness.” But the vague, impressionistic depictions of the goings-on mystified me on occasion, especially toward the end of the book. I’m still not sure of some major plot points. Like what exactly happened on the Integral? How did he get back to his apartment from there? How was he not arrested way earlier than he was, if the One State was as oppressive as he swore? Etc. . .
I do understand the reasoning behind the device, and I mostly enjoyed its effect. But it almost made this into an abstract work of art, in a way more poetry than story, and that’s difficult for me to wrap my head around in a novel. I’m not sure if it had to do with my translation (Mirra Ginsburg), but the impression I’m getting from other reviews is that it was a pretty universal experience.
What Zamyatin excelled at (aside from his prescient and genre-defining world-building) was getting the reader inside an acolyte’s head. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been as nearly convinced of the benefits of slavery as I was while reading this novel. Just one example, combining spectacular imagery, poetic language and eerie brain-washing:
And now I was marching in step with everyone — yet separated from them. I still trembled from the recent excitement, like a bridge after an ancient iron train rushed, clattering, across it. I felt myself. But only an eye with a speck of dust in it, an abscessed finger, an infected tooth feel themselves, are aware of their individuality; a healthy eye, finger, tooth are not felt — they seem nonexistent. Is it not clear that individual consciousness is merely a sickness? p. 128
That is awesome, chilling stuff.
In sum, this is a must-read for any fans of sci-fi, and even for connoisseurs of classic literature. It should be a cultural touchstone in the same way that Orwell and Huxley have become. Let’s make it so! Honestly it seems misguided that I read Brave New World in high school and not this, a far superior version that covers essentially the same territory. Orwell is still essential, but now I know it’s in addition to Zamyatin.