We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Book review

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Folio Society, 2018, £36.95

Review by Stuart Douglas

It seems a little redundant to be reviewing Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel, We, for the British Fantasy Society, given its undeniable position as one of the great science fiction novels of the twentieth century.  Even if they’ve not read it personally, surely everyone in the Society has had this classic genre work recommended to them, or at least knows of its role as inspiration for George Orwell’s 1984?  

But, like 1984, We is a novel which repays re-reading and, to my surprise, picking this beautiful Folio Society edition up, I found my attitude to it had changed since the last time I read it, twenty-five years ago, as a post-grad.  Then, I remember thinking it an inferior work when compared to 1984, and Zamyatin a far worse writer than Orwell.  We certainly lacks the power of the slogans and phrases which 1984 has brought to the English language and, as a consequence, feels (or, rather, felt to me in my twenties) somehow less important.

Like 1984 (and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for that matter), We is at once a vision of a horrifically sterile future bureaucracy, and a study of the author’s contemporary world.  Where I once marked the latter down, and the former up, however is in the story which unfolds in this future dystopia.  1984 has a straight-forward narrative, following Winston Smith as he rebels and is then crushed by the party apparatus.  We, on the surface, employs a very similar narrative, in which D-503 (the narrator of the book, a mathematician working on the ‘Integral’, a rocket designed to take news of the One State to the stars) becomes involved with a woman he should not, and in doing so begins a form of personal rebellion which eventually leads to his being brought to heel by the State. Unlike 1984, however, a large amount of We consists of the thoughts of the protagonist (the novel is told in the first person via a series of Records, diary entries intended to be placed on the Integral).  As a result, it’s a slower book than the novel it inspired.

But it’s also perversely both bleaker and more optimistic and it’s this lack of pat solutions which is, on a fresh reading, the area where it really shines.  The narrator brings his mathematician’s eye to his diary, leading to a prose style which can be seen as just as sterile as the strictly regimented society it describes (‘Every morning…at the 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.’)  But there’s a poetry in the dryness of D-503’s writing which matches the glass city in which he lives (‘Every spark of the dynamo is a spark of purest reason. Every stroke of the piston is an immaculate syllogism’) and the story as it leisurely unfolds is subtler than I remember (and more layered than Winston and Julia’s journey in 1984).  In an echo of another classic dystopian work, EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, though, the perfect society breaks down and nature intrudes, but by then D-503’s own little rebellion is over.  A Great Operation has lobotomised him, so that – even more than Winston – he loves the State again and is merely confused by the execution of his erstwhile lover and the collapse of the One State and the triumph of an individuality he can no longer share.  

The core message of the book – that revolutions are infinite and never end, and that there can never be a perfect society – was hardly likely to endear Zamyatin to the Soviets of the early 1920s, which explains why it took so long to see print in Zamyatin’s native Russia (not until 1988!).  The Folio Society have done their usual fabulous job in this edition, with a hologrammatic face in profile receding like a Russian doll through a window in the silver and grey slip case, and an interior peppered with gorgeous line drawings by Kit Russell. An introduction by Ursula K Le Guin (who called this novel ‘the best single work of science fiction yet written’) completes an impressive package which does this most impressive of books full justice.