WE, by Yevgeny Zamyatin is about the future. Specifically a possible future for the human race. It is a cold glass future, where logic and mathematics are prized above all else. People do not have names, but numbers. The story is told through the journal entries of the novels central character, D-503. D is an adult male who lives behind the brilliant and everlasting glass wall of ONESTATE. All humans are numbers and work to support the glory and logic of onestate. There are no tangled green plants or pesky animals in onestate. Food is made of petrolium and appropriate amounts are rationed to each number. A spaceship is being constructed which will spread the glory of onestate throughout the universe. This spaceship is called INTEGRAL, and It’s primary builder: D-503.
D-503 is sort of like Don Draper, from Madmen. He is the prototype of the perfect being of his times. An idealized version of an average citizen. He is a mathematician, an engineer, he has a cute girlfriend (O-90), and he loves OneState. He is content to be not just a grain of sand, but rather to be a fraction of a giant mass of sand in a glorious sandcastle. However that changes when he meets the sharp teeth of I-330, a special number. A female. One with an affinity for the chaotic “idiotic” ancient times. Unlike the perfect circle that D-503 sees in his girfriend O-90, the face of I-330 reminds him of an X. “something about her eyes or brows, some kind of odd irritating X that i couldn’t get at all, a thing i couldn’t express in numbers.” I-330 plants a seed in D-503, one which will shake him to his very core, and awaken something the doctors of OneState have identified as a disease. This disease? A soul.
“I’m in front of a mirror. And for the first time in my life, I swear it, for the very first time in my life, i get a clear, distinct, conscious look at myself; I see myself and I’m astonished, like I’m looking at some “him.” There I am- or rather, there he is: He’s got straight black eyebrows, drawn with a ruler, and between them, like a scar, is a verticle crease (I don’t know if it was there before). Gray, steel eyes, with the circle of a sleepless night around them; and behind that steel-it turns out i never knew what was there. And from that “there” (a “there” that is here and at the same time infinitely far away)- I am looking at myself, at him, and i am absolutely certain that he, with his ruler-straight eyebrows, is a stranger, and somebody else, i just met him for the first time in my life. And i’m the real one. I AM NOT HIM.
No. Period. That’s all nonsense, all those stupid sensations… they’re phantasms, they come from being poisoned yesterday. Poisoned with what, the swallow of green poison, or her? It doesn’t matter. The only reason i’m writing this down is to show how human reason, even very sharp and exact human reason, can get crazily confused and thrown off the track. This same reason, which has managed to make even infinity, the terror of the ancients, easily digestible by using…
The intercom screen clicks. I see the numbers R-13. Good- I’m even glad. For right now, being alone would…”
I-330 is special. D-503 knows this, but cannot quite understand why. He only knows that he wants to be around her. He knows this is illogical. Though it goes against his very nature, he cannot help but do irrational things to be with her. The more he is around her, the more his imagination comes back to life, and with this new imagination, the descriptions become increasingly vivid.
“grey [uniforms] woven out of damp fog hastily swam into existence near me, and in the next minute dissolved into the fog. I didn’t take my eyes off the clock. I was the second hand, sharp and trembling. Eight minutes passed. Ten. Three minutes to twelve, two… I knew it. I was already late for work. How i hated her. But i had to show her… On the corner in the white fog. Blood. Cut with a sharp knife. It was her lips.
“it looks like i’ve kept you waiting. Anyway it doesn’t matter. You’re already late.” How I… But she was right. It was already too late. I looked silently at her lips. All women are lips, nothing but lips. Some are pink, supple, round- a ring, a tender shield against the whole world. And then these: A second ago they didn’t exist, and now suddenly, made by a knife, the sweet blood still dripping… Closer- She leaned against me with her shoulder, and we made one, she blended into me-and i knew: This is how it has to be. I knew this with every nerve, every hair, with the sweet pain of every heartbeat. And what a joy it was to give into this has to be. A piece of iron probably feels just as glad to submit to the precise, inevitable law and clamp onto a magnet. A stone thrown up in the air hesitates for a moment then plunges headlong to the earth. And after the final agony a man is glad to breathe his last-and die. I remember that i smiled in a vacant way, and for no particular reason, said, “Foggy… very”
“You like the fog?” She’d switched to the familar form of “you”-an ancient, forgotten form… the “you” a master used to his slave. It was slowly sinking into me, but sharp: Yes, I am a slave, and this is also how it has to be, also good.
“Yes, good,” I said aloud to myself. And then to her “I hate the fog. I’m afraid of the fog.”
“that means you love it. You’re afraid of it because it’s stronger than you, you hate it because you’re afraid of it, you love it because you can’t master it. You can only love something that refuses to be mastered.” Yes, thats right. And that’s why, that’s exactly why I…
The two of us walked along as one.Somewhere a long ways off through the fog you could hear the sun singing, everything was supple, pearly, golden, pink, red. The whole world was one immense woman and we were in her very womb, we hadn’t yet been born, we were joyously ripening. And it was clear, unshakably clear, that all this was for me: the sun, the fog, the pink, the gold- for me. I didn’t ask where we were going. It didn’t matter, just so we were going, going, ripening, burgeoning and supple…
This book was written between 1920 and 1921, though it wasn’t published in Russia till 1988. Zamyatin was an engineer, and a revolutionary. A little more about him:
After graduating as a naval engineer, he worked professionally at home and abroad. In 1916 he was sent to England to supervise the construction of icebreakers at the shipyards in Walker and Wallsend while living in Newcastle upon Tyne. He wrote The Islanders, satirizing English life, and its pendant A Fisher of Men, both published after his return to Russia in late 1917. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 he edited several journals, lectured on writing, and edited Russian translations of works by Jack London, O. Henry, H. G. Wells, and others. Zamyatin supported the October Revolution, but opposed the system of censorship under the Bolsheviks. His works were increasingly critical of the regime. He boldly stated: “True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics”. This attitude caused his position to become increasingly difficult as the 1920s wore on. Ultimately, his works were banned and he wasn’t permitted to publish, particularly after the publication of We in a Russian émigré journal in 1927. MORE HERE
This book is fiction, and it does deal with science. But this book is no work of science fiction. It is the work of the soul. This is a work for all who smell the roses. This is a work for us who see the beautiful abstract poetry that is written on the face of every person. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The poetry of synchronicity, and the wisdom of the absurd. Don’t walk or run, rather jump and skip and cartwheel to the nearest used bookstore, buy this book, and fall in love with love all over again. Surrender yourself to the comic genius that is a society of pure logic. Afterwards go out and discover Zamyatin’s influences, specifically Dostoyevsky. Read notes from the underground. See how Dostoyevsky ideas influenced Zamyatin. and see the product. This glorious dystopian prototype. The very same manuscript which would inspire George Orwells 1984. See how life begats art, which inspires others to become inspired by life, which begats more art. See how beauty and poetry, like mathematics and death, “never make a mistake”.