The time frame of many dystopian or science fiction tales can be fluid, set in a slightly altered dimension or just out of the reach of present day time. Zamyatin's We doesn't feel so out of reach, likely as chilling in 1924 as today - and today, it is thought-provoking and quite chilling.
I listened to the audiobook and it was enhanced by the narration in the tone of voice heading to the end.
The introduction by Margaret Atwood alone is so damn compelling about the I cultures of the Us vs. the We culture. but also the larger questions this novel interrogates—but when does the we become a mob? a Nazi rally? What to do when we is a culture a crossfire?
I am sad to say that I did not love this story. This was a difficult read, both because of the style of writing and because the dystopian future thing feels over done. But this is the book that supposedly started all the others. It influenced Orwell when he was writing 1984 (indeed a glowing review by Orwell is included in my edition, bookended with an Intro by Margaret Atwood). This is a real “under his eye“ type story set in a clean, symmetrical glass-built city. The loose disjointed writing style made it hard for me to get traction with this story. In the edition I read, there is a line space between every paragraph and every paragraph is almost it's own separate mini-story. Everything switches directions all the time. I switched from electronic format to print because I do find electronic books difficult to find my place in. The print was only marginally easier to track. Everyone in this future world has a number, not a name. They all participate in the same activities at the same hour of the day. When our protagonist starts to break the rules, things get even more confusing and it's hard to tell what is real and what is dream. Dreams apparently do not exist so how do we know if the narrator can even tell us what is a dream? The narrators confusion only enhances my own. Perhaps that was intentional, but it was still difficult to get through. I'm glad I read it, but I can't say I truly enjoyed it!
Thought I'd try the origin of dystopian fiction ... It was ok, but like Brave New World and 1984, isn't really my thing.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is the classic dystopian and predecessor to 1984 and Brave New World that you have never heard of because it wasn’t written in English and banned in it’s mother country, Russia. If you are a fan of these dystopian classics, I cannot recommend reading this one enough. Personally, as a fan of these classics as well as the more modern dystopian novels like The Hunger Games, I absolutely enjoyed reading this and seeing where the origin of so many of the cornerstone ideas of the dystopian genre came from.
I would absolutely recommend the edition of We by Ecco released in 2021. It featured Bela Shayevich’s translation as well as footnotes, which added brief, yet incredibly interesting, context like where historical racial attitudes/stereotypes affected the portrayal of certain characters in the story. This edition also had an introduction written by Margaret Atwood and an essay written by George Orwell, which only served to add to the context of this novel as a classic in light of the more modern dystopian genre.
Stream-of-conciousness perspectives are not my favorite, so I also would recommend the audiobook by Louise Brealey and Toby Jones for the incredible voice-acting, which made one of my least favorite styles of narration more interesting. Additionally, thanks to NetGalley for an ebook arc!
Dystopians, to me, are always ludicrous scenarios.
D-503 is a man deluded by his own assumed rationality. The world as he presents it is chaotic, despite his reporting of the heavily regulated and timed regimen he and all the other "numbers" go through. His love of the One State manifests as unhinged, which is, you know, the point. It reflects reality, rather, how people so obsessed with an ideology depart from reality.
I haven't read any other translations, so I can't compare how this one does. I think it captured what the author set out to portray.
DNF at 32%
When I saw that this book inspired 1984 (one of my all time favorites) and had an essay from Orwell and LeGuin, I really wanted to pick it up. However, after starting it, I have realized that this is a book I would not want to read except within the context of a college literature course. The meaning is too explicit and the racism is too jarring for this to be an enjoyable personal read.
Thank you for the opportunity to read the title and review. No review will be posted to Goodreads or Amazon.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a Russian dystopian novel from the 1920s that was never published in Russian but only in English translation as it was smuggled out of Russia. Thought to have influenced both 1984 and Brave New World it drescribes a dystopia where everyone lives in glass houses so they are always watched. People have numbers not names. Our narrator is D-503 who is the lead on building a rocket ship and meets a mysterious woman who might have the explanation as to why he has hair on the back of his hands. D-503’s overly negative perception of his masculine hairiness reminded me of a yeti so I thought my Christmas yeti would be a nice accessory for this photo.
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.
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 where automation and industrialization has led to a society where humans no longer have mothers and fathers and not even real names, just 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 it a bit of a hard read for me is the fact that D-503 refers to I-330 as I, which made some sentences confusing to read 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.
Check out my full review.
*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.*
"Our poets don't dawdle in the empyrean: they've come down to Earth; they march in step alongside us to the stern, mechanical March of the Music Factory; their lyre is the morning buzz of electric toothbrushes and the awesome crackle of sparks in the Benefactor's Machine; the majestic echo of the Anthem of the One State and the intimate tinkle in the sparkling crystal chamber pot; the rousing rattle of falling blinds, the joyous voices of a new cookbook...Our gods are right here among us--in the Bureau, the kitchen, the workshop, the bathroom; the gods are like us: ergo, we are like gods.
And we are coming, my unknown planetary readers, we're coming to you, to make your lives as divinely rational and precise as Ours…"
▪️We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
I love dystopian fic and Russian lit, so when I found a new translation of a classic Russian dystopian novel on @netgalley, I requested it immediately and pre-ordered a paperback!
Zamyatin's dystopia will feel familiar to those who've read George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, since We was published in 1924, prior to those which were published in 1949 and 1932, respectively. They echo similar themes, character tropes, and fears.
Another book that came to mind is Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott, published in 1884. Both We and Flatland math and rationality against personal freedom and expression, and both follow a single character's journey from blind conformity to informed awareness.
I know this is a long review, but I have strong feelings about these books and love talking about them! Thanks to @eccobooks for an ecopy to read and review! This edition is especially excellent with essays from Margaret Atwood, Ursula K Le Guin, and George Orwell.
This was a fascinating read, if not entirely my cup of tea. It's easy to see where authors like Orwell and Huxley got inspiration from how this portrays a dystopian society based on equality, and it's equally easy to see this as prescient for the way the soviet era would and wouldn't work, but the way we wrote sci-fi in the 1920s and 30s just _does not work_ for me as a modern reader. That's entirely on me, and if it's more your vibe, you're going to like this.
The intro from Margaret Atwood is nice, though ill-timed given some of her recent comments. I've still got a bad taste in my mouth from those so I was perhaps less willing to deal with an intro from her than if I had read this a month or two ago. The essay from LeGuin is great, as so much of her stuff is.
Maybe I missed something. But I can't get past the narrator's switch from back-and-forth government lap dog to BDSM slave.
This book is a classic and I can see why. Clever, at the time original, influential to several modern classics, I'm glad I read this book. Despite the narrator's weird swings.
The Good: The grandfather of dystopian science fiction
The Bad: Meandering plot; racist depiction of Africans
The Literary: Chapters as journal entries; stark and disjointed prose that fits the protagonists' state of mind
Mathematician D-503 pours all of his energy into building the spaceship Integral and lives ardently for the OneState, which has perfected humanity and with the Integral plans to subjugate alien species with the beneficent yoke of reason. The totalitarian society is devoid of passion and creativity, citizens live in glass houses inside a walled city for easy supervision, wear identical uniforms and eat synthetic food, and sex is only allowed with specific partners during the designated hour.
The goal of the OneState is universal happiness, and the story of We is a precursor to George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, and Margaret Atwood, among many other seminal works in the dystopian genre. Despite being written a century ago, most of the dystopian elements feel fresh, if over worn by the stories that have followed in its wake. The book was deemed too radical for the mother country and is still not published in Russia.
Written as a series of journal entries, D-503's allegiance to the OneState is shaken when he meets I-330, a tall beautiful woman with sharp teeth who harbors illegal ideas of revolution. He falls for her when she performs music of the ancestors in order to demonstrate inspiration, that obscure form of epilepsy. D-503 is emotionally moved but can only describe it as madness, torment, pain, and passion, before he recovers himself and nervously laughs it off.
Obsessed, D-503 cannot work, eat, or sleep. He shuns his former sex partner O-90 and his best friend R-13. He goes to a doctor, who tells him that he's very sick, before donning x-ray glasses and studying his brain. "Sorry to say, but it's serious! Looks like you have developed a soul." He wanders the city like a zombie, and every small encounter with I-330 only fuels the fire of his passion. She gives him small tasks for the resistance, and he obeys, though a small part of him wants to remain loyal to his government, he is powerless against her.
Compared to Brave New World, I find the plot more rambling, but I like that even the most devoted citizen, D-503, has natural barbarous tendencies that must be minimized and maintained with order and rationality. I love the strong female leads as the catalysts for change, and I'm not surprised the translator's note mentions that Zamyatin's wife brought him into the fold of radical politics. I love the ending.
One particular note does not read well to modern eyes. R-13, D-503's best friend, is an African with dark skin, and when he talks, "words spray out of him, splattering out of those thick lips". In the midst of D-503's obsession with I-330, he is outrageously jealous of R-13's association with her, and when R-13 saves I-330 from a mob, D-503 describes R-13 as "nasty and agile, like a gorilla". Ugh.
I highly recommend this edition published by Ecco for the introduction by Margaret Atwood and the essay by Ursula K. LeGuin, who considered We the single best work of science fiction when she wrote the review in 1973. Every fan of science fiction dystopia should read this precursor to the greats we all know and love. There is no final revolution!
We is considered one of the first dystopian novels (along with Jack London’s Iron Heel, although it could easily be argued a number of H.G. Wells’ novels would qualify). In high school, I so enjoyed Brave New World that I sought out other “similar” books. I had already read 1984 (which was highly influenced by We). Of course, Iron Heel and We were two of the most highly recommended but somehow, I never got around to either one…until now.
A note about this specific edition: there are plenty of extras that make this worth the purchase price. Being a fan of Ursula Le Guin’s writing, I especially enjoyed her essay. Of course, I also appreciated Margaret Atwood’s introduction. There are a few plot spoilers, so the reader may wish to read it after reading the book (only enriched my reading experience). The cover art is fantastic and Orwell’s essay is interesting. Unfortunately, I am not at all able to speak on the quality of Bela Shayevich’s translation. I knew she tried to make it contemporary, and it certainly had that feel. Given the numerous editions available of We, I would highly recommend the Ecco edition.
As for the story itself, the protagonist is D-503, who is connected with two different women: the familiar O (so-called for the shape of her lips and plump wrist) and I-330, an alluring and extremely mysterious woman. Ultimately, D-503 initially loves being a part of the state with blind allegiance. However, over the course of the book, he realizes with increasing clarity the notion of the individual. Zamyatin is able to show how individuality can be a pushback against totalitarianism, but too much individuality may not be good for a communal society. While 1984 and We share more in common overall, I was actually reminded of Orwell’s Animal Farm in the overall message. I think Animal Farm has a similar, more nuanced political message. Whereas 1984 warns of the danger of a totalitarian state, Animal Farm discusses the dangers of both anarchy and dictatorship. Similarly, Zamyatin critiques both selfish individualism and soul-crushing dictatorial rule. Zamyatin infuses the story with ironic humor, so I enjoyed We better than the heavy-handedness of 1984. I feel like Orwell makes for better quotes, but Huxley and Zamyatin are better storytellers. Overall, a good read.
Thanks to NetGalley for giving me an ARC of this seminal dystopian story that was first published in the early 1920s. This 2021 edition includes commentary by heavy hitters Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, Ursula K Le Guin, and its translator Bela Shayevich.
Atwood’s insightful preface in this edition puts important elements in We into context for today’s readers. However, I recommend skipping this and plunging straight into Zamayatin’s work tabla rosa—and then come back to read any accompanying commentary.
In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1912 essay, “I Am Afraid” he notes that “true literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics.” Zamyatin cuts out a big task for himself in We, as his protagonist/author is none of these things.
Rather, the scientist/engineer perspective of the protagonist makes it more difficult for a reader to empathize with him as an individual, which I find a very interesting conundrum that Zamyatin has created. There’s some wry meta irony going on in this story.
We is written as the philosophical awakening of a rational, no nonsense rocket scientist named D-503, set down on paper as a memoir. As a scientist, his language is rational. He favors mathematical expressions, and he uses this language metaphorically throughout, such as when he describes his discomfort as a child when he first came across an irrational number or as an adult when he sees a poem about “two plus two” as evocative of the beautiful multiplication table or the “square root of negative one,” which serves as a catalyst to destabilize his world view.
Zamayin’s totalitarian state can be viewed through the lenses of any of several systems with rigid rules: not just mathematics, but also religion, government, or even as a noncritical “adventure for the child who needs syrup for the medicine.”
We see the world of D-503 is one of uniformity and transparency. Everyone works at the time time and relaxes at the same time, and you can be assured that your neighbor is doing the same thing, because the building walls are all made of a tough-as-steel transparent glass. The only private time is for sex, which requires permission slips from the government and must be performed only with designated people and with curtains drawn closed.
The prose is a bit dry, heavy with symbolic flat characters, highly satirical, and coyly Victorian.
D journals about his girlfriend O-90 whom he affectionate nicknames “O” in reference to her rounded mouth, her baby fat wrist, and her receptive acceptance of him. But soon he meets and falls in love with an irritating yet intriguing woman, I-330, (pet name “I”) whom he envisions as an X because the angular lines of her eyebrows and her nasolabia laugh lines meet to form an X. Today, we may sign a love letter XOXO, but as a description of your lover, either description is horribly off-putting, But Zamyatin uses the letters as expressionistic (and maybe mathematical) symbols, “O” representing soft passive compliance, perhaps even “zero.” In mathematics, “I” is an imaginary number and an “X” a mathematical placeholder for an unknown value, perhaps standing for personal expression (as opposed to the state). And the “D” in the protagonist’s own name? I cannot even guess; in mathematics, a “D” usually represented the grade I received.
The appearance of the new woman not only shakes up his love life, but his whole totalitarian world. But in actuality, are these women just sidekicks? Foils that enable him to grow? Or are they, along with best friend R-13 the actual heroes?
On one hand, he longs to give in to his passions, and on the other hand, ooh, he is ashamed of his atavistic hairy hands peeking out from his work uniform. And his work? The rocket he is building is designed to carry the message of OneState to the other planets in the galaxy. His work, like everyone else’s is notably calculated according to Taylor’s rules of motion, which sadly to say, isn’t described—after all this is a Russian satire not a screwball parody.
In this Russian satire, OneState is as oppressive as Nurse Rachet and as kind as Florence Nightingale. Seemingly agathokakological, it’s up to the individual how to take meaning from this book. ;)
WOW!!!! firstly, saying that Orwell was "inspired" by WE is incredibly generous to Orwell. the similarities are many, though i found the differences the most interesting. written just decades apart, readers can see that a novel about communism and a novel about fascism are radically different. i felt incredibly connected to "D" the narrator. ah the ending hurt! perhaps most interesting is the ways in which WE and 1984 both position women as inherently sinful/evil.
This is a great novel, albeit one that doesn't translate perfectly into English. And yet I find I like the first translation from 1924 the best. Maybe it's because I read Zilboorg's translation first, or perhaps it's because his use of "thou" for "ты," which is accurate as well as aesthetically fitting. Shayevich uses "you."
But this edition is worth buying for the Margaret Atwood foreword and the supplemental essay from Ursula LeGuin, and George Orwell's 1946 review.
Thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to review a temporary digital ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.
A classic Utopian novel that I once taught to my High School Senior English class back in Illinois way back in the 1970's. The book has stood up well over time but will likely not make it to the best seller lists. Great book for those folks that like to read Brave New World and 1984.
Dystopian novels are usually not my favorite, but I finally read 1984 earlier this year and wanted to read the book that influenced Orwell. I was extra excited that it was a translated work with such an interesting publication history.
We is a dystopian future where society has given in to the collective, but the main character, D-503, begins to realize he has a soul and gets involved in the resistance. Which is basically the plot of 1984. The end of this edition includes Orwell's original (1946) review of We which he compares to Alduous Huxley's Brave New World only to publish his own version a few years later.
For me the biggest difference between We and 1984 is the tone. In We, D-503 truly believes in the system of the One State, whereas in 1984 Winston appears contemptuous of the Thought Police/Big Brother from the beginning. I think this gives 1984 a bleaker outlook, which in some ways makes We even more sinister because D-503 is so joyful about the surveillance state he lives in.
As a whole, I enjoyed this and would definitely recommend this. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but as the first of its genre I think it is worth giving a shot!
Side Note: I would definitely recommend reading Margaret Atwood's forward after the book because it includes spoilers for the plot of the book though it does help contextualize some of the era Zamyatin was writing in which definitely adds to the reading experience.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Ecco for an advanced copy of this dystopian science fiction classic.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is set in the 26th century in a city encased in glass under the all-seeing-eye of a Benefactor who uses secret police and governmental bureaucracy and propaganda to control the populous. Published after the Russian Revolution Mr. Zamyatin's book is very prophetic and for the time new. Humans being humans however it seems that what took 600 years in the novel, we are trying to do in one hundred.
An influence, some would say a lot more of an influence considering the many themes that run through books, on George Orwell's 1984. Included in this newly translated edition are an essay on this book by George Orwell, an introduction by Margaret Atwood, and other commentary by similar writers and thinkers. For a book unknown to most readers, this novel was quite influential. Much of the plot and the themes will seem familiar, ie 1984, but there is still that innate Russian sense that carries throughout the book. For a book written before the ideas of Stalinism and the Cult of personality it is amazing what Mr. Zamyarin saw could happen, and what did.
I had read this book years ago, and I am not sure if it is the new translation, the book moves well even with the strange jumps, and dialogue that confuses more than carries the plot along. Maybe as a reader I have become more familiar with what the writer is attempting, or that the political reality has made me more attuned to what is going on around me. Not an easy book to read, but if you liked 1984, not in the hmm we need more of that sense, but in the what we allow others to do in the name of control, I highly recommend this book.
I have mixed feelings about We. I’m glad I read it and I enjoyed the themes explored in this classic dystopian tale, but the style of writing didn’t work for me at all. It was very jumpy and spastic, and I felt lost many times. I can definitely see how the ideas in this book have been very influential to other authors because it sends such a powerful political message.
I really appreciated the introduction by Margaret Atwood included in this edition and the additional essays at the end from George Orwell and Ursula K Le Guin.
Thank you to Ecco and NetGalley for the ebook in exchange for an honest review.