We is the fundamental dystopian future novel, which served as an inspiration for many of the better known works dealing with totalitarian regimes. Written in 1921 by a Russian author who had first-hand, albeit still brief, experience with life under communist rule, the story feels very authentic and offers futuristic predictions that with the benefit of over a century of hindsight don’t sound too hyperbolic. The book expertly combines worldbuilding with characters that are very relatable, and as a result it feels fresh and modern even today, to the point where other better-known titles may feel aged.
D-503 lives in the glass city of the United State. He lives his perfect life of a mathematician tasked with building the first interplanetary spaceship, in the perfect society where all activities are strictly regulated, and nobody has to bother with those pesky things like feelings or uncertainty. His days are dictated by the Tables, which tell him when to wake up, when to work, take a walk or even have sex. The later two are just as orderly as the rest of activities. Everyone walks the same speed and direction, in rows of four. And sex requires a permission slip, which is issued for certain days and hours. This slip even allows the participants to lower the curtains on their glass apartments, for brief privacy.
D has a lover, O-90, which registered him (along with another male) as her partners. She is a short, plump woman, and D is so comfortable with her that he goes with her on scheduled strolls as well. On one such walk, the person next to him turns out to be a most intriguing woman: the tall and sexy I-330. She enchants D, and slowly but steadily starts chipping away his blissful ignorance. She introduces him to the forbidden vices of cigarettes and alcohol, and by deliberately withholding her presence at key moments, she drives him nearly insane with lust. So broken, D would do anything for her, and she takes him out of the city, beyond the Green Wall. The wall was erected after a long war between the city and the countryside, and it is thought that only untamed and chaotic nature exists outside. I introduces D to humans that have been surviving there for generations. They physically mutated but appear to have the same mental capacity as the people in the city.
I asks D to take these people onto his spaceship on its maiden voyage and to hijack the ship away from the city. When this proves not to be feasible, she wants him to use the ship to destroy the city. He doesn’t do that, either, and instead lands, and I and her co-conspirators are arrested. D undergoes a new surgery that removes the emotive center of his brain, turning him into an even more perfect and oblivious automaton than before. He testifies against I, and the book ends with the conspirators awaiting their execution, while the revolt is still raging around them.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: This book seems to have heavily inspired George Orwell’s 1984, to the point where even many of the story elements are the same. Orwell wrote a review of We a few years before 1984 was published, so he was very familiar with the story. There are some differences, such as the characters in We having more agency and being far better developed, but on the other hand Orwell added geopolitics (more than one country) and newspeak to his work. In my review, however, I’d like to focus on We only, without comparing it to other works.
Zamyatin seems to have been a very observant person, as he got certain elements of communism right, after only very few years from the end of the Russian civil war. The unanimous election of the leader could have easily been describing elections in the Great Soviet or elsewhere in the communist bloc in the 1970s. The war between the enlightened cities and the countryside predicted the Ukrainian Holodomor and other Soviet atrocities associated with the farm collectivization, and the enormous disconnect between the cities and villages in present Russia still looks and feels like it fell out of this novel. The literal Green Wall may be only metaphorical in real-life Russia, but it seems to be just as effective.
As someone who grew to adulthood under the dictatorship of a communist regime, I appreciated the oblivious bliss that D was initially exhibiting. We didn’t have such strict rules, and as children we certainly had more freedom than described in the book (even though we were strongly warned by our parents to not repeat anything we heard at home because the teachers would report anything that sounded illegal), the gist of the rules, regulations and even the deliberate destruction of the family unit sound eerily real. People may consider some of the elements of worldbuilding as far-fetched, but communist countries were advancing in that direction, at the snail’s pace of required technological advancement. The main elements of this were the glass walls of the city, which prevented any privacy, and apparent abundance of resources that allowed everyone to work only strictly set hours and never lack anything. Communist regimes aspired to this via their five-year economic plans, which never turned out well, but that was not for lack of trying. By imagining this perfect system, Zamyatin inadvertently introduced one of the lasting features of later dystopian works: monochromatic, but crisp and clean world. What his United State reminded me the most of was the movie Equilibrium. In fact, I have a strong suspicion that the creative minds behind that movie were fans of We and its aesthetic.
Where the book stands out even more, however, if the characterization of the narrator and a few side protagonists. D starts out as an utterly believable governmental drone. His descend into love is gradual and fully convincing. His actions may not be logical, but they feel very authentic. He is torn between being enchanted by I and an insidious secret police officer whose mere presence fills him with dread (also very evocative and real description). O serves as D’s counterpoint. Even though she is just as loyal to the state, she seems to have feelings, which D happily ignores. This just highlights how much D is living in his own world of math and government rules. Even a tertiary character, U, adds more color to the narrative. She is the perfect archetype for a nosy, cruel neighbor that would tempt people into acts of disobedience, just to be able to report them to the secret police. Or she would become the president of a homeowner association in the modern world… The only character that seems a little awkward is actually I. She seems to be the ultimate succubus, being able to bend everyone to her will, but I think the author himself did not understand how she could do that. Perhaps there was a woman like that he knew, but he failed at explaining to his readers what was so compelling about her. The character of I seems greatly forced, and the imperfect narration by D, who seems to lose his mind whenever he as much as thinks of her, doesn’t help to explain her.
Still, We is a masterpiece. It describes a vibrant, yet terrifying world, inhabited by real, yet just as terrifying people. The worldbuilding is far ahead of its time, and the character arcs feel very real and relatable. The very sparse use of technology and jargon helps to keep the book fresh and modern. At times, the prose may not be the easiest to read, but anyone with even a passing interest in dystopian futures should read this work.