Author: Yevgeny Zamyatin
Publisher: Avon Books
Publication Date: 1988
Rating: 5 stars
I want to thank my fellow English major, Joe, for the opportunity to read this book. The English Honor Society I am a part of had a “blind date with a book” event for Valentine’s Day (if you don’t know what that is, check these out and try it sometime, it’s a great idea!), and one of Joe’s contributions was this gem of a book. I never would have considered reading this book had I come across it in a bookstore somewhere, so I am eternally grateful that I ended up unknowingly selecting this book as my blind date. I realize that it is now May, but I just now had the time and motivation to read it. Our date may have been postponed a couple months, but boy, was it worth it…
Written in 1921 by Russian mathematician Yevgeny Zamyatin, We tells the story of cipher D-503 who lives in the One State, a sort of paradise or utopia where there is no such thing as individual freedom. Everyone’s day is scheduled and regulated by the Table of Hours, and failure to preform your given duties results in consequences delivered by the almighty Benefactor, the God of the One State. Everyone works and lives for the collective good. Having imagination or a soul are considered diseases. D-503 is the famed Builder of the Integral and a highly intelligent mathematician and engineer. His life is the same, day by day, until he meets cipher I-330. All of a sudden, D-503’s monotonous schedule is disrupted, and he is told that he is developing a soul and a heart; he is falling in love.
We is an epistolary novel – it is written as a series of journal entries by D-503; there are a total of forty records (short chapters). This is not an easy read. If you’re looking for something fun and quick, this is not the book you’re wanting. This was written by a mathematician in the early 20’s – obviously, this book takes some time to not only read through, but to read it and understand it. In the Introduction, “Them”, by Natasha Randall, she states that Zamyatin “rendered emotions in equations, relationships in geometry, and philosophy in calculus while delivering a page-turning story” (xvii). I love that this is the earliest rendition of a dystopian that I’ve ever read. Go through my Goodreads “read” shelf – you’ll see I’ve read my fair share of dystopian novels (most of them YA, but still). It is incredible to read one written so many years ago, one basically setting the foundations for the genre. Bruce Sterling points out in the Foreword that science fiction (or sci-fi) was not even a known genre back when this was written; therefore, We not only set the foundation for dystopian novels, but displayed many aspects of this sci-fi genre yet to be invented.
The metaphors in this novel are not only amazingly articulated, but highly relatable. There are numerous allegories and a few references to the author’s own life/experiences. I really enjoyed how much of the novel was up to the reader to understand and connect the dots. For example, The Integral is just that: The Integral. It’s up to the reader to realize what it is: a rocketship. I like that nothing is overly explained. It leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination (sickness!) and ability of picking up on context clues. It is a hard novel, but I, a 19-year-old English major, was able to understand a lot of it on my own, and if you truly want to read it and figure it out, I guarantee it’s doable.
Last semester I dealt a lot with stream of consciousness novels (thanks, Virginia Woolf). We is not necessarily stream of consciousness, but it deals a lot with one’s inner thoughts and the flow of those thoughts. The author uses a lot of colons, semicolons, and ellipses; his sentences are often fragmented. The author himself describes this as language of thought, and in the Introduction there is a quote from Zamyatin from one of his essays titled “On Language”, and I thought it was a great explanation of his writing style in We: “If you try to follow the language of thought in your own mind, you will not find even the simplest sentences–only shreds, fragments of simple sentences. Only the most essential elements of a sentence are used: sometimes only a verb or only an epithet, an object… At first glance this assertion may seem paradoxical: why should fragments of sentences, scattered as after an explosion, have greater effect on the reader than the same thoughts and images arranged in regular, steady, marching ranks? … because you meet the reader’s natural instinctive need. You do not compel him to skim…”. Some believe this makes We hard to read and follow along, maybe that it is incomplete and broken, but I found it added to the novel, gave it a greater meaning, and forced the reader to use their (here it is again, that sickness!) imagination. It forces the reader to look within himself. It made the novel more relatable.
I gave this book 5 stars only because that is as high as I can rate it, but would gladly rate it higher if given the chance. I finished this book with tears in my eyes. I felt like I lost a friend after I reached the last page. I would highly recommend this book, and if you find it difficult or confusing, please don’t give up on it – it is a magnificent book and I wish I could forget the entire 203 pages only so that I could read it again for the first time.
“Who knows who you are…A person is a novel: you don’t know how it will end until the very last page.”
“And we all must go crazy, it is essential that we all go crazy–as soon as possible! It is essential–I tell you!”
“All of life in its complexity and beauty is forever minted in the gold of our words.”
“…how strangely tangled and dislodged human reason – so precise and sharp – can become.”
“…some achieved the love of many but many achieved the love of none.”