Dystopian or anti-Utopian literature is a genre that has always interested me. I can’t really describe this type of reading as enjoyable but I’m attracted by the ideas and thoughts suggested by these types of books and the implications there might be for today’s society.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin was completed in 1920-21 before Stalin’s rise to power so it was quite prophetic for the time but it also feels prophetic nearly a hundred years later with its themes of a technological and utilitarian world.
We is written in a first person narrative and is fragmented and oblique in places because of this. It wasn’t until I was about three quarters of the way into the book that I really began to connect with the story and I think that was largely due to this intentional device the author used. It suited the overall theme of the story but it wasn’t an easy read.
I’m not going to attempt to ‘review’ this book as I don’t think I’d do it justice, but I’d like to focus on some of Zamyatin’s ideas that stood out to me as relevant to our present culture.
A quick, very basic outline of the story:
It is the twenty-sixth century A.D. Many years ago, there was a two-hundred year war between the City and the Country and only a fraction of the world’s population was left alive. Since the war, OneState, ruled by the Benefactor, and overseen by the Guardians, has vanquished Hunger and Love, the previous rulers of the world, and established a regimentation of mankind where everything is mathematically precise, each citizen functioning like a machine.
D-503 is the narrator of We. He is a mathematician and the builder of the INTEGRAL, a technologically advanced space ship that OneState is going to use to spawn the perfect society through the rest of the solar system.
Through D-503 we are introduced to the citizens of OneState (identified only by Numbers) and their collective society as he documents his thoughts in a diary. D-503 becomes infatuated by I-330, a leader of the Mephi, an underground group of revolutionaries. This messes with his rational, precise mind and he becomes sick. In fact, according to the doctor, he seems to be developing a soul:
“You’re in bad shape. It looks like you’re developing a soul.”
A soul? That strange, ancient, long-forgotten word.
We sometimes used expressions like “soul-mate,” “body and soul,” “soul-destroying,” and so on, but soul…
“That’s…very dangerous,” I murmured.
The Mephi have plans to get control of the INTEGRAL. A revolution is brewing and D-503 is instrumental in allowing them to achieve their aim.
Some ideas expressed in the book:
A rigidly controlled society
Conformity – the victory of all over one, of the whole over the part
The individual personality is subjugated to the collective
The mathematical precision of life in a controlled environment
The regimentation of mankind
…the Table of Hours – it turns each one if us right there in broad daylight into a steel six-wheeled epic hero. Every morning, with six-wheeled precision, at the very same hour and the very same minute, we get up, millions of us, as though we were one. At the very same hour, millions of us as one, we start work. Later, millions as one, we stop. And then, like one body with a million hands, at one and the same second according to the Table, we lift the spoon to our lips…
The Benefactor is all powerful, a god-like being who desires sacrifice
The State was above everything – loved ones, friends, the individual
The total surrender to Technology and Utilitarianism
The mechanism has no imagination.
When you were at work did you ever happen to see a distant, idiotic, dreamy smile spread across the physiognomy of a cylindrical pump? At night, during the hours designated for rest, did you ever happen to hear the cranes toss restlessly and heave sighs?
…But you are not to blame. You are sick. The name of your illness is:
Controlled & selective reproduction
The idea that the natural world is ugly and the technological society is pure
Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he built the first Wall. Man ceased to be a wild man only when we built the Green Wall, only when by means of that Wall, we isolated our perfect machine world from the irrational, ugly world of trees, birds, and animals…
A belief that everything in the past was primitive and absurd
Happiness and freedom are incompatible
Freedom is regarded as ‘disorganised wildness’
At the same time as I was reading this book, I’d started reading through Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education by David V. Hicks. He observes that:
‘The ancients, unlike us, expected science to enhance the their understanding of the material world without particularly helping them to transform it. Their real interest was man, and wherever possible, they tried to turn Science away from matter to man…
Because the ancients regarded man as free…and not as determined by a material universe, there was little reason to turn science and mathematics into tools with which to mold nonliving matter and man’s future…
But modern science…would change the world and, if we accept the dominant ideological creeds of the nineteenth century, it would change man…
A fundamentally political ideology dedicated to the reform or the anticipated progress of material conditions uprooted the ancient insistence upon a personal ideal.’
Hicks goes on to say that the modern world has rules of analysis that ‘increasingly govern our understanding and appreciation of art, poetry, history, and even religion.’
It is not concerned with what ought to be done, but what can be done.
Taken to its extreme, the end result of this way of thinking is the starting point for D-503’s world.
‘There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The difference lies only in the fact that one stick of dynamite explodes once, but one book explodes thousands of times.’Yevgeny Zamyatin
George Orwell’s review of We
Short biography of Zamyatin – he was a naval engineer and had a technical background.