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Thursday, 2 August 2012

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I do love a good bit of dystopian fiction. Some of my all-time favourite books are sci-fi reads and I am learning to kick my inner book snob to the kerb and enjoy some of the current crop of young adult dystopian adventures that are all over the shops at the moment. So of course I was going to adore this chilling prediction of a future police state which apparently went on to inspire such classics as 1984 and Brave New World.

The One State is a vast urban expanse that sprawls under the confines of a glass roof and walls, separating it from the outside world. Its inhabitants (or 'ciphers') wear identical uniforms and go about their business in unquestioning serenity according to a strictly planned minute-by-minute timetable. The walls of their bedrooms and apartments are made from clear glass so that nobody can hide anything from their fellow citizens. The State is presided over by the all-seeing Benefactor and his team of Guardians, who are elected annually in an open and unanimous vote. They have commissioned the building of the spaceship Integral to celebrate the one-thousandth anniversary of their seizing power of the whole world. 
"And of course, the only things that are aware of themselves and conscious of their individuality are irritated eyes, cut fingers, sore teeth. A healthy eye, finger, tooth might as well not even be there. Isn't it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?"
Our story is told through the eyes of D-503, who is writing a diary to place on the Integral to explain the ideals of the One State to any extraterrestrials that might come across it. He is generally happy with his lot - he holds an esteemed position as Builder of the Integral, he is regularly allocated tickets for Sex Days with his chosen partner O-90 and he finds comfort in the mathematical equilibrium of his surroundings. That is, until he meets the mysterious cipher babe I-330 who slowly makes him question everything he had ever believed about himself, his relationship, and the One State itself. 

I absolutely loved every minute of this book. D-503 is such a charmingly naive protagonist and you can really tell that despite his almost total lack of freedom he really believes that the Benefactor and the One State are forces for good. As the story progresses, you feel exactly what he is feeling as the foundations of everything he knows are shaken to the core. The whole second half of the book illustrates his inner turmoil so well without ever becoming incoherent or rambling.

It is clear that Orwell was influenced by We when writing 1984 (my copy even had a quote from him on the back cover!). I believe he started writing it a matter of months after reading Zamyatin's work. However, for me the two novels both excel in different aspects. In 1984 Orwell masterfully depicts the social and political workings of Airstrip One down to the last detail, introducing us to such concepts as Newspeak, Big Brother and thoughtcrime. I feel like We is less imaginative than this but goes much further to describe the effect of such a totalitarian rule on the individual - the narrative has more humour and human insight. This may well be because Zamyatin drew on his own experiences of living through the Russian Revolution to write his book. He even had to smuggle it out of the country in order to get it published outside of Soviet rule. 

There is so much more I could say about this book if I had the time to sit down and arrange my thoughts in a more coherent manner. Every page is thought-provoking and I know I'll be thinking about it for a long time. Let's just say it is a must-read for any fans of dystopian fiction. I would also recommend having a read of the author's life story as it is just as fascinating as the novel itself!


  1. I've tried this book and gave up almost immediately. To be fair, I had a digital copy with an awful font. But also, I didn't like the way it started.

    Maybe I should start again with a paper copy, it didn't work for me digitally. I do love dystopia, like you.

  2. It might be an idea to give it another chance, Judith - a bad font can be really off-putting but equally I've read on Amazon that the translation on some editions isn't great. Maybe you would have more luck with another edition!

  3. Hmm not sure if I would be into this, great review Marie

    Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

  4. I read this book long, long ago while I was doing my degree... reading your review has just reminded me how much I enjoyed reading it. I do love a bit of dystopian fiction!

    1. Ha - just realised that my dystopian fiction comment almost copied your first line! Whoops.