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The Daily Shaft – Thoughts on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We”

Until a few weeks ago, I thought I had a pretty good knowledge of the seminal works of early 20th century dystopian science fiction.  In my mind the only novels that really mattered within the sub-genre were Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Then a friend and tossed me his copy of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Nothing important,” he answered.  “It’s only the book that inspired Orwell to write Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

I’m sure some people find it disquieting to learn that they have a giant hole in their reading list, but I rather enjoy the discovery.  It takes me back to the knowledge rush of my undergraduate days.  In fact, I think it’s more exciting now since I can re-evaluate a much broader base of fiction under a new lens.  That said, I’m sure I’ve invited enough hubris here to have somebody else point out another essential work of the early 20th century.

Zamyatin wrote We in 1921.  The Soviet government refused to publish the novel.  It’s first print was in English in 1924.  It wouldn’t be until 1988 that the novel was finally printed in Russia.  Tempting as it would be to review this novel, I know there’s no way I could do it justice with less than a couple thousand words at my disposal.  Instead, I’ll take a moment to talk about a couple of the themes that stood out as most relevant to this modern reader.

Efficiency is at the crux of OneState, the fictional world in which We is set.  Within this walled city state people wear identical clothing, males and females all have their heads shaven, and life is governed by clocks, tables, and efficient bureaucracy.  All buildings are transparent so that the Bureau of Guardians might better police the citizens of OneState.  F.W. Taylor’s theories on industrial efficiency are revered as scripture within this society.  Everything is ordered right down to the number of chews a person must take per bite.

Consider then the story’s protagonist D-503.  D-503 is a mathematician and the chief engineer of OneState’s INTEGRAL: A rocket capable of bringing the reason and logic of OneState to the solar system.  D-503 is happy.  He begins the book happy and he ends the book happy.  Unlike Winston Smith and Bernard Marx, misanthropes and outsiders from word one, D-503 has the contentment of his entire life uprooted and then re-rooted within the text of the novel.  Why is D-503 happy?  Because his life is efficient.  At the core of that efficiency is his removal from a state of freedom.  OneState provides its citizens with food, sex, education, shelter and purpose; the state then organizes all of those necessities into a convenient table of hours.  What else is necessary to make a person happy when they have all these things, asks D-503?  Isn’t that all we want in this world, as well?

Brilliant as Orwell may have been, his world has not, and likely will not, come to pass.  I’ve always thought our future is much more tied in with the vision of Mr. Huxley; of course that opinion was formed during the economic boom of the late 90s and early 2000s.  In this time of economic uncertainly the promise of OneState becomes that much more relevant.  The growth of the service sector, weakness in manufacturing, and countless other factors have turned government into an ideal employer.  In North America and Western Europe, government, albeit indirectly, provides a significant percentage of the population with food, sex, education, shelter and purpose.  What would become of us if that indirect control became universal at the cost of being direct and invasive?  What would a lost generation trade for purpose?  Where is the line drawn between efficiency and austerity?

Ninety years later, We invites these and many other questions.  It’s a novel that examines the relationship between the system and the individual.  But where a contemporary work such as The Matrix does so from the perspective of the dissident, We looks from the inside out and in doing so gives a voice to the parts of us that want the system, fear freedom, and would surrendered to a benefactor if he promised us a happy life.