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Book Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

December 9, 2021 Leave a comment
Image of a book cover. A floating eye looks down a city. It notes there is an introduction by Margaret Atwood.

Summary:
In a glass-enclosed city of perfectly straight lines, ruled over by an all-powerful “Benefactor,” the citizens of the totalitarian society of OneState are regulated by spies and secret police; wear identical clothing; and are distinguished only by a number assigned to them at birth. That is, until D-503, a mathematician who dreams in numbers, makes a discovery: he has an individual soul. He can feel things. He can fall in love. And, in doing so, he begins to dangerously veer from the norms of his society, becoming embroiled in a plot to destroy OneState and liberate the city.

Set in the twenty-sixth century AD, We was the forerunner of canonical works from George Orwell and Alduous Huxley, among others. It was suppressed for more than sixty years in Russia and remains a resounding cry for individual freedom, as well as a powerful, exciting, and vivid work of science fiction that still feels relevant today. Bela Shayevich’s bold new translation breathes new life into Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal work and refreshes it for our current era. 

Review:
The history of this book is fascinating. Smuggled out of Soviet Russia and only ever published in translation in exile from Russia. Published before 1984 and Brave New World and said to have been at least some level of influence on both. So it’s absolutely an important read from the perspective of scifi history.

A what-if version of automation and industrialization. These successes have led to a society where humans no longer have mothers, fathers, or even real names. Instead they have numbers. D-503 is our narrator. He’s designing a rocket ship for the space program. He falls in with I-330, a woman working with a kind of back to nature resistance.

I’m not sure I liked either society depicted. It kind of reminded me of one of the societies depicted in The Time Machine that I didn’t like all that much either. But I was definitely moved and engaged and wanted to find out what happened. (The ending is bleak. I’m not sure why I hoped for anything else!)

One thing that made this a challenging read is that D-503 refers to I-330 as I. This made some sentences confusing since it’s also narrated in the first person from his point of view. It was not unusual for me to have to re-start a sentence after realizing it was actually about I-330 and not D-503 or vice versa. It’s unclear to me how much of this is a translation choice and how much of it is authentic to the book as originally written in Russian.

Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way is how the Black character is described. There’s a large, recurring focus on the size of his lips. On the one hand, the depiction of this character is very open-minded and equal. He and D-503 are both sort of married to the same woman, know it, and all consider themselves friends. But, on the other hand, the focus on his lips repeatedly was jarring. I’m again, not sure if this was in the original Russian or an awkward translation.

A creative world building element that I enjoyed is how this totalitarian regime keeps watch on its citizens. This was written before much technology, and so the citizens all live in glass homes. They have to get a special ticket to be able to pull the blinds. These are only issued for sanctioned sexual encounters. Thus to have private meetings, you must get tickets to have sexual relations with the person you want to meet with.

Recommended to those with an interest in the trajectory of scifi dystopias over time or with an interest in Russian literature.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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