We (1921)

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“You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

I recall reading an interview with George Orwell some years ago where a lot of the discussion seemed to veer towards the origin of perhaps his most notable work, Nineteen-Eighty Four. In this interview, Orwell discussed a story that had captivated his imagination in such a way that he became obsessed with the ideas it shared. I had never heard of this old story, a novel called We, but wanted to read it. He cited that We was his basis for his story, and assumed that Brave New World by Aldous Huxley shared a similar origin. This got me thinking – why had I never heard of this? Well, thats easy; The Iron Curtain and age kept this story somewhat buried under other stories that borrowed heavily from it. Being a fan of dystopian stories, and especially ones like Nineteen-Eighty Four and Brazil – I knew I would love We.

We was Written in the early 1920’s by Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin as a satirical jab at the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and was confusingly only released in his motherland of Russia in the late 1980’s. In fact, it was released in America first! This was, of course, because his work was banned by the very Communist party that is was making fun of (imagine that!). Yevgeny Zamyatin was an old school Bolshevik, and found his views largely less and less popular amongst people that were once of a similar mindset after Tsar Nicholas II was removed from power.

We is a story of the horrors that would be caused if humanity eventually adopted a purely scientific and atheistic society based on the writings of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Humans are reduced to mere labor machines with numbered names and absolutely zero sense of individuality. Everything is precisely planned and scheduled, and everyone somehow persists on food derived from petroleum production. Everyone lives in clean glass and plastic tower blocks and the world seems to be devoid of vegetation. There are many similarities with Nineteen-Eighty Four, but We is less dreary in many ways. Granted, Zamyatin’s masterpiece is by no means a happy story, but it’s distance from many of the actual horrors that Nineteen-Eighty Four were based on keeps it somehow more fantastical.

The protagonist, a man simply known as D-503, is very unlikable for the most part; a fact that could be jarring to readers that like to read from the viewpoint of a square-jawed He-Man that rights all wrongs. D-503 is not heroic, he is actually cowardly to a fault. The book is basically a chronicle of D-503’s decent into madness after discovering his long suppressed imagination or “soul” and his inability to deal with emotions and fear that comes with it. I felt that the story ends somewhat abruptly, but it follows the structure of a series of diary entries so it’s not completely out of place. I was happy that the post-modern writing style feels somewhat contemporary despite being nearly 100 years old, this is very easy to read as long as you can get over the style, especially the free flowing dialog that makes other books like Ulysses really hard to read.

Truly a classic everyone should read.

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