Yevgeny Zamyatin
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Buy *We* by Yevgeny Zamyatin, tr. Natasha Randall online

Yevgeny Zamyatin, tr. Natasha Randall
Modern Library
240 pages
July 2006
rated 5 of 5 possible stars
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Do you, in the words of Bob Seger, sometimes “feel like a number”? If you sometimes feel like a faceless number, one cipher out of many, a solitary cog in the machine, you will likely relate extremely well to the pioneering science fiction book We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, and the life of its hero, D-503, as seen through his words in the record he keeps of his life. We is a groundbreaking work in the genre of science fiction, a book which George Orwell credits as being a major influence on his own classic 1984. Orwell also believed that it was likely that Aldous Huxley read it. We is a book literally like no other, a work of science fiction written before that term had been coined. It is a suspenseful and oftentimes sardonic must-read for any fan of sci-fi/fantasy.

Centered on D-503, a state mathematic for the One State and the engineer of a spaceship called the Integral, We contains several dystopic pre-echoes of 1984. However, D-503 and the people of his world seem to be fairly content with their lives. We might be considered a post-war Oceania. Indeed, there has been a Two Hundred Year War in the One State’s past, and it is the sole survivor, a hermetically glass-sealed city of ten million (though some people live outside the city walls, “primitive” people covered in hair, called the Methi). It could be thought of, in these respects, as a sequel to 1984 - or, since We was written first, 1984 is a prequel is We.

Rabotat is a Russian and Czech word meaning “worker”; it is the word from which the word robot derived. That was a goal in both Russia and America: to produce workers who were like machines, who never erred, repeating the same mind-numbing behavior over and over again. D-503 is perhaps one of the strangest narrators in all of literature, always thinking in terms of mathematics, seeing people as ciphers. Logic and numbers are beauty to him, and his friend R-13 even composes poems about numbers:

Forever amorous two-times-two
Forever amalgamated in passionate four
The hottest lovers in the world--
Inseparable two-times-two
What would a person consumed by logic and numbers fear the most? Illogic, and anything that appears to be nonconforming, of course--like the irrational root of -1: “This irrational root had sunk into me, like something foreign, alien, frightening, it devoured me--it couldn’t be comprehended or defused because it was beyond ratio.” Perhaps what bothers and discombobulates D-503 most of all, though, is I-330, a woman who at the beginning of the novel “has a strange and irritating X to her, and I couldn’t pin it down, couldn’t give it any numerical expression.” If D-503 can be thought of as being an inspiration for Orwell’s Winston Smith, then I-330, who later becomes D-503's love interest, is like Julia from 1984.

D-503 goes from being a cipher who thinks he’s perfectly well-adjusted and happy into being a man who, while rationalizing that love is illogical, is regardless falling in love and growing a soul: “Can it be that all that craziness (love, jealousy, etc.) Isn’t only the stuff of idiotic ancient books? And to think it involves me!” Eventually, D-503 goes to a doctor he describes as “scissorslips,” who diagnoses him: “How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.” Reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, D-503 wonders: “But still, why - all of a sudden - a soul? I never had one - never had one - and then suddenly...Why doesn’t anyone else have one, but me?”

Will D-503, unlike Winston Smith, hold up under torture and not turn I-330 in? What use is an “imagination”? What is the Grand Operation? In a world where sex is a transaction one can engage in with whomsoever they wish as long as they present a pink ticket, why is an archaic thing like love important? While reading We (though I still give 1984 a slight edge as the better of the two novels) and thinking what to write about in this review, I wrote over six close-spaced pages of quotes that blew me away; the writing is so amazingly good. I had immense difficulty on choosing which quotes to include, and I left a bunch out solely for the sake of brevity. If you’re a fan of 1984, and/or the genre of sci-fi/fantasy, you will love reading We.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Douglas R. Cobb, 2006

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