We is Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s sci-fi novel about a world stripped of all freedom and ruled by strict and controlling schedules. The novel is one of the first instances in of dystopian fiction, and served as a major influence on George Orwell’s 1984.
We is a brilliant bit of fiction that suffers a bit from translation issues and some underwhelming stylistic choices. Honestly, in my experience, it is very rare that a Russian to English translation ever really works especially well. There’s just something about the manner in which the languages work, that doesn’t quite carry over.
There are really 2 striking elements to the book. The first is how fully this book informs nearly all of the “important” dystopian literature that comes after it. 1984 may as well be called “We: Take 2” for all of the cribbing and tonal elements it draws from this book. The other is just own starkly nice Zamyatin’s horrific fascist dystopia is compared to those that came after the purges and industrialized slaughter of the Soviet state, Nazi Germany, and Mao’s China. There are ritualized executions, but they seem to be a fairly infrequent occurrence, and the protagonist is able to move about and break the rules of society with impunity for a surprising amount of time without much effort. I wonder if Zamyatin would have been so “optimistic” about the surveillance state and its unswerving desire to control has he waited through the resolution of the Russian civil war to write this book.
The book itself is very engaging, but has issues with its brevity, and with its limited first person perspective. Where the plot itself moves about at a fast clip, details about the world as the characters know it comes at a slow drip, to the point that many facets either slip past unnoticed because the reader doesn’t understand their importance, or they are far to underdeveloped. And because the protagonist has lived in this world his whole life, he doesn’t make any particular note of it, further pushing the issues with underdevelopment. While I appreciate the space to imagine it for myself, I think I could have easily enjoyed another 100 pages further breaking down and expositing on the structure and style of the future state. On the other hand, its admirable how much mileage Zamyatin is able to get out of such a short book told from a single perspective and focusing more on emotional development than setting or action.
I know some of that seems fairly critical of the book, but it’s pretty great. Zamyatin practically built the genre from scratch, and it’s incredible how well he did, and how much influence the book had on modern literature. So go read it.