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rionafaith

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We - Yevgeny Zamyatin, Natasha Randall
We walk--one million-headed body--with a humble joy in each of us, similar, I imagine, to what molecules, atoms, and phagocytes experience. The Christians of the ancient world (our only predecessors, as imperfect as they were) also understood this: humility is a virtue and pride is a vice; "WE" is divine, and "I" is satanic. ... Isn't it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?


I've been meaning to read We for years now. Written in Soviet Russia in 1921, it's been called the first dystopian novel. It created quite a stir in its day: Zamyatin was arrested, banned from publishing, and later exiled from the USSR. The manuscript of We survived by being passed around covertly through literary circles, and an English translation was published far before a full Russian version ever saw the light of day. The chilling vision of a police state with a homogeneous population has inspired countless modern classics, 1984 and Brave New World in particular. As Bruce Sterling writes in the introduction:

The term "science fiction" was not yet invented when Zamyatin composed this prescient text. It is nevertheless extremely science fictional. It has whole sets of sci-fi themes and conceits that were entirely fresh when Zamyatin created them: hermetically sealed cities, synthetic food, unisex suits, Metropolis-like crowds of drones marching through cyclopean apartment blocks, whizzing, roaring trips in giant spaceships, mind control through brain surgery... They're cliches now, of course: but they were only reduced to cliches through decades of effort by lesser artists.


It is this book's undeniable influence and legacy that led me to read it, and that's primarily what I gleaned from it. The imagery is really fantastic. One of my favorite concepts in the realm of speculative fiction is the question of "What makes a dystopia?" or even "What is the line between utopia and dystopia?" I don't really believe in true utopias, because no world can be perfect for everyone. There's always someone on the bottom, and someone on top in control. The same is true of dystopia, though, and the interesting part for me comes when the population finds comfort in their control.

The citizens in the One State of We are referred to as "ciphers", not people. They're given alphanumeric codes instead of names. They live in identical apartments with glass walls in full view of their neighbors, and can only lower the blinds for fifteen minutes during copulation, which is strictly regulated with a ticket and scheduling system. They favor reason above all else and truly believe their society is enlightened. They scoff at "the ancients" (us), who believed in individual freedom--what could be so ridiculous? Instead, the ciphers are of a hive mind. They even eat in unison, chewing each bite 50 times before taking another, perfectly in sync with their dining companions.

I loved the detail that went into building this world, so unlike any other novel at the time it was written. Unfortunately, I think other authors have done it better in the years since. I might have gotten more out of it if I were more knowledgeable about Russian history and had understood more of the allegories. It's still definitely worth a read, though.