We by Yevgney Zamyatin is famous as founding the genre of dystopian science fiction. Written in Russia between 1919 and 1921, the novel imagines a future society based on surveillance and control. Glass-walled apartments allow the state to keep an eye on everyone at all times.
I thought parts of the novel were wonderful. The best bits for me were the descriptions of an obsessive love affair, between the book’s protagonist – a highly-strung space ship engineer known as D503- and a rebellious young woman, known as I-330, who drinks, smokes and talks revolution. D503’s love affair causes him to challenge assumptions that the state is all knowing and all good. He starts to feel like an individual. At the same time, he wants to lose his newfound identity in the beguiling eyes of his feisty girlfriend.
“Like a crystal I was dissolving in her, in I-330.”
The book is not simply a portrayal of an oppressive controlling state. This is a nuanced study of relationships, both personal and social. It has no clear messages to suit propagandists of any kind. D-503 likes maths, and realises that just as there is no final number in mathematics, so in life there is no final revolution. Life keeps going, with doubt and uncertainty keeping the wheels turning:
“Man is like a novel: up to the last page one does not know what the end will be. It would not be worth reading otherwise.”
I also liked the Zamyatin’s quirky humour, not what you might expect from the father of dystopian novels. The manuscript of We is part of the story. As D-503 writes it, he describes various misadventures that affect his growing pile of paper. At one point, I-330 leaves her stockings lying on page 124 of the open manuscript. As well as making me chuckle, this also made the point that books really are just a pile of paper. No book, no philosophy, is the final word in wisdom. We is about discovering that such wisdom does not exist.
Unlike Ursula le Guin, I wouldn’t say this is the perfect science fiction novel. The plot is creaky in places, with sudden jumps that sometimes left me bewildered – particularly towards the end. Considering all that D-503 gets up to, the secret police seem rather absent, which was part of an occasional mismatch between actions and consequences.
Overall, however, this is a historic book, up there with the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as one of the foundations of science fiction.