Wednesday 22 January 2014


(January 2014)

Well, this is all very dramatic and… Exciting! The narrator is conflicted! Torn! Shaken to his moral… And emotional… Core! We know this because… He uses many ellipses… And exclamation marks! On every page… And paragraph! Constantly! It quickly becomes very tiring! Reading every! Sentence! With a mental rising… Intonation!
So another book marred by the author’s inability to conceive of a narrator with a bit more poetry in their soul (this is ironic, for reasons we will come to later). We is the very clear inspiration for both Brave New World and 1984, and a couple of Ayn Rand books (apparently). Our narrator D-503 is, in addition to being whiningly conflicted about pretty much everything, a mathematician in what is by now your standard oppressive-state dystopia.

Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy.

The United State (singular) is essentially a massive panoptician with everything made of glass and everyone constantly under surveillance.* Our man D is quite happy in his work, designing and building an experimental spaceship to further extend the imperial glory of the Well-Doer, but then he meets a saucy little temptress who smokes and drinks and rebels and his whole worldview gets undermined and everything goes to shit. Well, more so. Like Grease without the songs or the happy ending.

This flippancy is, of course, pretty disrespectful and wholly undeserved. This is clearly the fountainhead (sorry) for practically ALL twentieth century political SF. Saying it ‘inspired’ BNW and 1984 is like saying Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet ‘inspired’ Baz Lurhman’s movie. It’s a straight copy just with a slightly different setting. And, of course, Billy S nicked the plot from Arthur Brooke anyway, who nicked it from, who nicked it from, who nicked it from...

What am I saying here? There’s nothing new under the sun? No, that’s not right. If anything the point of this book is that change is inevitable and we should all be highly suspicious of any polity that purports to be immutable and everlasting. This is an incredibly important book. Orwell and Huxley get all the credit but Zamyatin was there first, living the nightmare as a naval engineer for Imperial Russia and working in the Tyneside shipyards. But as ever the Anglophones get all the credit (on which note I couldn’t find the translator for this edition, despite emailing the publisher to ask. Guess that’ll teach me to go for dodgy cheap e-book versions of stuff in the public domain). 

Zamyatin’s industrial and imperial experiences manifest in a society of mechanistic rigidity: everyone’s lives are regulated to the hour by The Table and D-503 has several visions of the workers on his colonial spaceship as literal cogs in the machine. His slightly incredible infatuation with I-330 (she of the booze and fags) leads him to a seditionary cell planning an unheard of insurrection and, in his wisdom, he writes all this down in his diary – in an archetypal surveillance state where everyone can see what everyone else is doing at all times. This, one can’t help but feel, is something of a rookie error.

This plot-enabling oversight is all the more unfortunate as the State has just developed an operation to remove all notions of fancy or imagination (or, indeed, poetry) by means of zapping the brain with an x-ray, and thus the race is on to spark the rebellion before being forced to undergo this prototypical electro-shock therapy. And, because you know this story even if you don’t know you know it, I feel I’m giving nothing away by saying that it doesn’t end well. It’s not quite the rats in Room 101, but no less inevitably dispiriting because of it.

Dehumanizing industrial processes, all seeing surveillance state, disproportionate repression of any hint of rebellion against the system, elections gerrymandered to ensure the continuing dominance of a microscopic ruling elite, and unavoidable brain-death under the pretext of ‘progress’ and social control. We is ninety years old but feels like it could have been written last week and that contemporary relevance is, more than anything else, the truly terrifying thing about this book.

*Except when they’re fucking, obviously.**
**Arrangements concerning ablutions are mercifully undocumented.


  1. It's all of those things, and also seminal, as you said. He's very lucky he was only exiled, and missed the Trotsky treatment.

    1. Yep. I guess it's one of those things where if he'd been born a decade or two later it would have been very different. As, perhaps, would a lot of Western literature.

  2. That's how they suck you in though, isn't it? It's all sex and drugs and then the secret police are kicking down your door and lobotomising you. Though for some people that's just a Thursday.