Before Brave New World…Before 1984…There was…We
“One thousand years ago your heroic ancestors subdued the entire terrestrial globe to the power of the One State. Yours will be a still more glorious feat: you will integrate the infinite equation of the universe with the aid of the fire-breathing, electric, glass Integral. You will subjugate the unknown beings on other planets, who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficent yoke of reason. If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy…Long live the One State, long live the numbers, long live the Benefactor!”
So begins one of the most influential Sci-Fi novels of the 20th century. We, completed in 1923 by Russian intellectual Yevgeny Zamyatin, was the forebear to Brave New World and 1984. It inspired those two now timeless classics of Western literature. And it was no mere fantasy novel sprung from its author’s imagination. We was born out of the beginnings of Russian totalitarianism.
Although Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are hailed as prophets and literary greats, Zamyatin is practically unheard-of on this side of the Hemisphere and his great literary feat has now fallen into near obscurity, at least within Western consciousness. The only reason I can attribute for this is that his name fell victim to the Cold War.
For almost 50 years the icy relations between two ideologies—Capitalism and Communism—made reading literature from the other side very difficult if not sometimes impossible. Despite the fact that Zamyatin was essentially criticizing the direction his own country was heading, he nonetheless found himself caught between the two warring ideologies and was marginalized by both continents.
Though copies of his novel did make it into circulation and left indelible impressions on Huxley and Orwell, We ultimately fell to the wayside. It is only now, with the Cold War over, that full attention can be given to this visionary. He deserves to be hailed as a literary master.
We is written in the style of a series of journal entries, narrated by the number D-503 (people are referred to as numbers in the One State), the Master Builder of the spaceship Integral, tasked with subduing alien races of other planets to the will of the One State. D-503 believes completely in his task and in the ultimate wisdom of the Great Benefactor, the god-like dictator of the One State. His mission is one of near holy importance. This is what makes it all the more shocking to him when he encounters a rebellious woman, I-330, who burns with such a passionate belief in freedom of the individual and in love, that he is unable to control himself and falls in love with her. Passion, after all, unless directed toward the Great Benefactor and the One State, is a disgusting and shameful thing. Emotions of any kind are forbidden.
As D-503 wrestles with his inner turmoil—he considers himself “sick” and “diseased” due to the passion he feels for I-330—he records it all in his journal, which is to be used as a reference point for the newly conquered alien races who will no doubt be suffering their own versions of inner turmoil as they are forced to cast aside their cultures and beliefs and committ wholly to the Great Benefactor. It is this way that we get to see the transformation of D-503 from a brain-washed automaton into a thinking, feeling human being.
A little more context, however, is needed in order to understand the full impact of D-503’s experience. The One State is a gigantic city made of glass, and I mean everything is glass—the walls, floors and ceilings of houses and buildings, chairs, tables, roads. Everything is transparent so that there is no privacy. No one can hide anything because, as the argument goes in the One State—and eerily today in our own country—if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Privacy is for people who are doing things they shouldn’t be doing. And to ensure that all numbers are behaving the way that the One State wants them to behave, there are also the Guardians—the fanatical ideologues who monitor the numbers of the city from planes (called aeros) and who have installed voice-recording equipment to cover every inch of the city in order listen to every conversation among the One State’s 10 million inhabitants. Think of the NSA on steroids.
The One State
And along with the subjugation of the human will, Nature also has been subdued and virtually eradicated from the confines of the city. Nothing green, no grass or trees, not even animals (numbers eat some kind of petroleum-based processed food), exists within it. Nature, that chaotic, disgusting unruly force, has been expelled beyond what is called the Green Wall, which encircles the One State. Beyond the Green Wall lies the wasteland that is the rest of Earth. In the aftermath of the Two Hundred Years’ War, in which the One State burned every surrounding town and village and forced every survivor to migrate into its glass-encased circumference, the rest of Earth has been left to rot.
This is the world D-503 has been born and raised and lives in. A world where for a thousand years since the Two Hundred Years’ War, the numbers of the One State have been living a strictly scheduled, rigidly observed daily routine. Not even sex has escaped regulation. Numbers receive “coupons” to copulate with someone of their choosing on designated days at designated hours and everyone is available. There is no ownership, no relationship and no property that exists unless it is controlled by the One State.
And although this may sound bleak and dystopian, Zamyatin at heart is no cynic. For in his depiction of this dark world there is still something untouchable, something mysterious that exists within human nature that the One State can never stamp out. Zamyatin recognizes, no doubt gleaned from his own real life experiences, that some people, despite the circumstances in which they find themselves, will never bow down completely. And this is exemplified in the underground resistance which lives under the surface of the One State and is gaining momentum. A certain contingent of people who simply are going through the motions of worshipping the One State, but who never believe in what they are doing. These people are merely wearing a disguise in order to survive. And this is embodied in I-330. She is an integral part in this resistance and her relationship with D-503 might not be only one of passion, but also one of calculation. For if the Master Builder of the Integral can be convinced to turn against the One State, then who can’t be?
But of course, time, as in any great novel, is running out. The One State knows there is trouble brewing. And the One State’s Science Department has located the actual organ in the brain that is responsible for imagination. So the One State has decreed under penalty of death that every number must report to the Auditorium to undergo the Procedure—in other words, have their imagination permanently removed. It will be the final nail in the coffin for individuality.
Yet the novel is more complex than this. It is a multi-layered, dynamic piece of literature. I have only read it once, but I have a sneaking suspicion that if you read it more times you’ll find many ideas that you didn’t pick up the first time through. I saw many things in this book that I recognized as having inspired the great scenes in Huxley’s and Orwell’s masterpieces. We is that good.
Zamyatin paid the price for his great novel. As the Russian Revolution morphed into the beginnings of Leninism and Stalinism, Zamyatin was given a glimpse into the future of Russia. The Great Revolution had occurred in 1917 and by 1921, when We was being written, Zamyatin was already being critically attacked for writing anti-Party literature. The growing and ever pervading belief at that time was that all art and talent should be directed toward hailing the Great Revolution and the rising power of the new Russia. Anything else was considered heretic.
Zamyatin never bowed down. To the end he fought for and was vehemently outspoken in his belief that literature and writers should have the freedom to express whatever the writer and the work of art believes to be the truth. Truth, for Zamyatin, was the ultimate ideal.
Once Stalin fixed his crosshairs on the troublesome Zamyatin, his career in Russia was over. Luckily, and surprisingly, Zamyatin escaped with his life, but he was banished from Russia for the remainder of it. Exiled in Paris, Zamyatin was left a somewhat embittered, displaced man, a victim of ideology.
But his sacrifices should not be in vain. Read his book. It’s the least We can do.