Thursday, January 3, 2008

Book Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Trans.: Natasha Randall

Written in the 1920s in Soviet Russia, We set the bar for dystopian fiction. You don't have to read far to see the influence it had on Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, and even Pink Floyd's The Wall. It's well worth reading, not only because of its literary historical significance as the progenitor of the modern dystopian novel, but also because it's a damn good story.

We is an epistolary of sorts, though the chapters aren't exactly letters but journal entries destined to be transported to other planets and read by other people. The protagonist, D-503, is a male mathematician who is in charge of building a spaceship called the Integral. The purpose of the spaceship is to seek out life on other planets, and to spread the happiness endowed by the One State to those planets . . . by force if necessary.

In the world of We, centuries from today, all aspects of life are controlled by the totalitarian One State, which is led by the Benefactor. Citizens have given up all forms of privacy and individuality and are regulated by the time tables. All people awake at a set time, go to work at a set time, and eat at a set time. In the lunchroom, they each chew every bite of food exactly 50 times, in time with everyone else in the room. As D-503 explains, this surrender of freedom has led to universal happiness by eliminating all difficult choices, all disagreements, and all struggles for self-improvement.

But then D-503 meets I-330, and his world is turned on its head. He finds in her a woman who defies the One State by indulging in the vices of drinking, smoking, and screwing. As disgusted as he is by her actions, D-503 is compelled to seek her out by some unknown force within him. He then discovers that she is not alone, that a revolution is brewing to take down the totalitarian One State. Their first step: to steal the Integral, for which D-503 has expended so much time, thought, and energy. He is then faced with an ethical dilemma — the first in his life. During this dilemma, he is diagnosed with a disorder called imagination, which may lead to something even worse: a soul. As the moment of revolution nears, the One State announces that it has found a way to surgically remove the imagination and orders all citizens to immediately submit to the surgery.

What will D-503 choose: freedom and uncertainty or regimented happiness? Zamyatin's ending is bleak, to say the least, but then, the future was bleak for artists and writers in Lenin's USSR during the 1920s, when the story was written. As they say, art imitates life.