Yevgeny Zamiatin was an enthusiastic supporter of the Russian Revolution in 1917 but by 1924 and the publication of a book ironically entitled We, he was worried that the revolution had brought not freedom but repression and conformity. After being persecuted for many years, he wrote an angry letter to Stalin himself, demanding the right to leave the Soviet Union. Incredibly, Stalin agreed, but in exile Zamiatin never wrote anything as memorable as this cheerfully deranged dystopia.
The censorship of books such as Zamiatin’s We is a compliment of the most backhanded kind. Under most totalitarian systems of rule, pop culture doesn’t avoid repression just because it’s low culture and frowned upon by the elite. The opposite is usually the case, as tyrants see clearly that such things have the ability to reach the people. In other words, there wouldn’t be much point in persecuting Zamiatin if his book wasn’t worrisome in some way. But could a lowly work of science fiction bring down a police state? Zamiatin’s answer is: no (see my comments about the downbeat ending), but you have to keep trying.
The reaction of official disgust for an outrageous SF-style satire like We happened to other critically disdained genres too. Humour, which gets just about as much acclaim as genre fiction in our society, has always been one of first things to face censorship under repressive regimes. I’m reminded of Milan Kundera’s first novel, The Joke, in which one of his perpetually horny characters sends a postcard to a girl he is trying to impress — the joke on the postcard earns him a trip to the labour camps. Science fiction could sometimes evade the notice of literal-minded censors in the Soviet Union, depending on the era or the writer, but interference was always a fact of life.
Back to Zamiatin. We is in the form of written reports by D-503, who lives in a futuristic society that considers happiness possible only in the absence of freedom. D is the gifted mathematician who has made possible the existence of The Integral, a spaceship that will take this wonderful culture to other worlds. D is happy, and he knows that this happiness is due to his strict following of the Tables — everyone wakes up in their glass rooms at the same time, they walk to work four abreast, and they can request a sexual encounter with anyone they please (at which point the curtains in their rooms can be lowered for half an hour). Zamiatin includes another dystopian flourish with the figure of the Well-Doer, who is elected unanimously every year and takes anyone who strays outside of the Tables on a fast trip to the Machine of the Well-Doer. Conformity or death!
Interestingly, Zamiatin seems to have the biggest faith in sexual deviance as the cause of conflict between an individual and a repressive system (another parallel with Kundera). D tells us early on, with regard to the system in his society: “It is clear that under such circumstances that there is no reason for envy or jealousy” (22). However, almost all of the plot events are driven by these two things, and related emotions. D-503 has had regular assignations with O-90 for three years when the book begins, but he soon falls hard for a woman numbered I-330. I-330 is a revolutionary, and she gradually gets D deeper and deeper into confusion and collaboration. D is desperate for contact with I, and he helps some revolutionaries onboard The Integral and other dangerous actions, all to spend more time with her. In the meantime, the woman who handles the paperwork for the assignations in D’s building, U, has fallen in love with D. At one point, she even helps him escape a trip to the Machine of the Well-Doer. But D is still infatuated with I! Cheesy soap opera? Yup. But it’s also a desperate juxtaposition with the regimented life everywhere else in this world.
Both Brave New World and 1984, famous descendants of We, are noted for their uncompromising endings, and We is also chilling in its conclusion. All three books are about characters who break conformity and are totally destroyed for it. Zamiatin puts his finger on how all this could happen too; it’s incredibly chilling to read this passage, written in the early 1920s, about one of the profound evils of the twentieth century: “The same evening I learned that they had led away three Numbers, although nobody speaks aloud about it, or about anything that happened… Conversations deal chiefly with the quick fall of the barometer and the forthcoming change in weather” (156-7). Humanity is on its way into a deeply bloodstained century and the neighbours talk about the weather.
We is essential reading for two reasons: the book understands totalitarianism and calls it for what it is; and the book is the basis for many important themes that followed in science fiction.
This review was originally published in slightly different format at Challenging Destiny.