It’s hard to believe that this is a book that was written in 1921 and came out first in English in 1924, as it was banned in Soviet Russia. We reads like it could have been written any time in the last fifty years. But that a book written in Soviet Russia four years after the Bolshevik Revolution should be able to predict the nature of nation-states of the 20th century so accurately, is astonishing.
In the evening, later, I found out they had taken three ciphers off with them. However, as with all occurrences, no one would talk about it aloud (the instructive influence of our invisible, ever-present Guardians). Conversation, for the most part, concerned the rapid fall of the barometer and the change of weather.
The book begins at an unknown time and place introducing the central character D-503, the Builder of the Integral, and one of the mathematicians of the One State. People’s names have been replaced by numbers, called ‘ciphers’ in this translation. D-503 narrates the sequence of events as diary entries, or a kind of log kept by the Builder, building a sort of spaceship for the One State. In the very first record, D-503 tells us that these records exist to keep the facts, tell us — the readers — the truth, tell us what the people of the One State think. And this makes D-503 acknowledge something:
As I write this: I feel my cheeks burn. I suppose this resembles what a woman experiences when she first hears a new pulse within her — the pulse of a tiny, unseeing, mini-being. This text is me; and simultaneously not me. And it will feed for many months on my sap, my blood, and then, in anguish, it will be ripped from my self and placed at the foot of the One State.
This suggests and foreshadows many things – the fact that the Builder is a keeper of official records, the fact that a writer and his text are to be separated, that a writer cannot control his reader, and that at the same time, something powerful is happening when a writer writes. This foreshadowing is not merely in the story alone, so much as in the events of the time on which this was written. D-503 goes on to explain much of the One State, where a rational lifestyle has been instituted to create a One State that achieves maximum efficiency. The analogy of the state to a machine occurs over and over in the narrative, in beautiful distinctive ways, telling us the state takes away name, love and imagination. Life has been regimented into set roles, set times and a set way of living, disciplining any human impulses.
So it’s natural that having subjugated Hunger (algebraically = to the sum of material goods), the One State began an offensive against the other master of the world — against Love. Finally, even this natural force was also conquered, i.e. organized and mathematicized, and around three hundred years ago, our historical Les Sexualis was proclaimed: “Each cipher has the right to any other cipher as sexual product.”
And the rest are technicalities. You are thoroughly examined in the laboratories of the Bureau of Sex, the exact sexual hormone content of your blood is determined, and then they generate a corresponding Table of Sex days for you. Then you make a statement that on your given day you would like to make use of this (or that) cipher, and you receive the appropriate ticket book (pink) and that’s it.
And for this, people live in glass houses so their activities can be monitored and any sign of suspicious behaviour, promptly noted. The only time blinds can be drawn is for sexual activity.
If it seems like D-503 is a narrator resistant to the system, he most assuredly is not. As the Builder of the Integral, he is convinced that the One State is an improvement to any previous ways of life the “Ancients” had practiced. He is particularly contemptuous of love, something so profoundly irrational, he compares it to his despair at discovering the irrational √ -1 in mathematics.
One day, Pliapa explained “irrational numbers” and I remember I wept. I beat my fists upon the table and wailed: “I don’t want √ -1! Take √ -1 out of me!” 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.
And so, the Benefactor, who presides over the One State is deserving of absolute loyalty. Any seeming resistance to the laws is suitably and severely punished through the use of a ‘Gas Bell Jar’, where dissidents are tortured by some form of asphyxiation.
As the story moves on, D-503 contemplates whether he should consider reproducing with a fellow cipher O-90. Instead, something terrible happens. He falls in love. He realises it with a dawning horror.
… we, on the Earth, are constantly walking over a bubbling, crimson sea of fire, hidden there, in the belly of the Earth. But we never think about it. But what if suddenly the fine crust of earth under our feet became glass, and suddenly, we could see…
I became glass. I saw into myself, inside.
In addition, the One State finally discovers the reason for the many anomalies of ancient human behaviour that have been occurring; they have been caused by a disease called imagination. And the One State has devised a medical procedure to cure ciphers of it.
Numerous things happen after this, for which I highly recommend you read the novel yourself.
George Orwell acknowledged We as one of the main sources for 1984 – in fact, the plot is too remarkably close to even think otherwise. In his own 1946 review of the book, Orwell draws similarities between Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, crediting Zamyatin for making We a strong political commentary. Orwell also identifies something crucial – that We was written during the time of Lenin’s death and that it probably wasn’t anticipating Stalinist totalitarianism so much criticising the practices of industrial civilisation. That in itself, is a powerful perception of what this book could represent. Orwell sums it up best when he says, “… (We) is in effect a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again.”
There are several arguments about the merits of Orwell’s 1984 over We, such as this rather defensive Guardian piece. If you were a science fiction addict in your teens, and thought 1984 was the definitive book of the 20th century, then perhaps like me, your admiration for Orwell might be dented a little bit. I find We to be a far more powerful novel than 1984, not just because it came out much before but because the style of narration is remarkable. The narrator goes from being an ambivalent responsible citizen, to being tempted by revolution and finally, convinced of his wrongdoing resuming his utter loyalty to the One State. If this isn’t the powerful indictment of the brainwashing that modern nation-states are capable of, I don’t know what is.
And if you are a math and science geek like I was as a kid too, then some of the descriptions in Zamyatin’s writing will delight you.
That day, yesterday, was like the paper through which chemists filter their solutions: all suspended particles, everything that was superfluous, remained on the paper. And this morning I went downstairs thoroughly distilled, transparent.
I must make a note about the translation I’ve used. I think Natasha Randall’s work is more poetically suited to Zamyatin’s turn of phrase than the more popular Mirra Ginsberg translation. For instance, Ginsberg uses the word ‘numbers’ to describe the citizens of the One State, while Randall’s ‘ciphers’ sounds more fitting. And Randall’s translation comes with a great foreword by Bruce Sterling that outlines more of Zamyatin’s life, work and philosophy.
And like more Russian writers that I’m reading, Zamyatin was a literary non-entity in his homeland. He died in exile and in much loneliness in Paris in 1937, without ever seeing his work published in Russian. The first Russian version of We came out in 1952.