- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s futurist novel “We” depicts what is conventionally thought of as a soulless dystopia, but could it be that it actually is a paradise like the Garden of Eden? One of the intellectual attractions of the novel, just reissued in a vibrant new translation by Natasha Randall, is that it draws a perversely fascinating parallel between the supposed opposites.

“We,” originally published in English in 1924, is the first of the important anti-totalitarian novels of the 20th century and had a definite influence on Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932) and George Orwell’s “1984” (1949). Huxley apparently never acknowledged the debt, but Orwell certainly knew of the book — he wrote a critique of it in 1946, three years before some of its themes appeared in “1984.”

It is commonly thought that “We” protests Soviet totalitarianism, but this is unlikely. Zamyatin (born in Russia in 1884, died in Paris in 1937), wrote it in 1920-21, before the Stalin dictatorship and Soviet apparatus were fully in place, though eventually it did land him in trouble with the authorities when the first Russian edition was published in Prague.

“We” is, rather, a generalized protest of the dehumanizing tendencies of modern industrial civilization. It is a blow against the Machine and the turning of humans into machines. (A “Taylor” is mentioned several times, a reference to Frederick Winslow Taylor, the American pioneer of time-motion studies.)

In the 26th century, the inhabitants of One State, ruled over by the annually elected Benefactor, have lost all individuality; they are called ciphers, not persons, and are known only by numbers. “All ciphers walked in measured rows, by fours,” wearing identical uniforms and showing “faces unclouded by the folly of thought.”

They consume petroleum-based food and live in all-glass houses, enabling the “Guardians” to police them more easily. Their holy writ, so to speak, is the Table of Hours (more edifying than even “that greatest of all ancient literary legacies: The Railroad Schedule”) by which their lives are rigidly regulated.

At certain times they are permitted to lower the curtains in their glass apartments for sex. All men and women have sexual access to each other through a kind of state-run rationing system.

The story is told through the journals of D-503, an engineer who rhapsodizes over “the mathematically perfect life of the One State.” He cannot fathom the chaos — including unregulated sex — of olden days, “that state of freedom, i.e., like wild animals.” He laments, however, that the ideal has not yet been reached, the ideal being “a state where nothing actually happens anymore.”

Indeed, says R-13, an “African,” One State has achieved the ancient condition of paradise. “Those two in paradise stood before a choice: happiness without freedom or freedom without happiness … They, the blockheads, chose freedom — and then what? Understandably, for centuries, they longed for fetters … Until we figured out how to return to happiness again.”

One State helped God conquer the devil, R-13 says; “it was this devil, you know, who urged people to violate what was forbidden and take a bite of that fatal freedom.”

Lack of freedom equals happiness? Wherever did Orwell get War Is Peace and Ignorance Is Strength from?

The Eve taking a bite of the apple in this sterile Eden is I-330, who turns out to be a member of an underground resistance movement with connections to the mysterious beings living in the wilds beyond the Green Wall. Her rebellious nature represents everything D-503 opposes, so of course he falls in love with her; he has, in fact, developed an imagination, a sickness that the state must endeavor to cure with an operation.

For the most part the story is more pointed and political than that of “Brave New World,” but less entertaining and accessible than that of “1984” with its developed personalities and sophisticated social-political concepts. Orwell seems to have copied Winston Smith and Julia’s visits to the proles’ area from the visits of D-503 and I-330 to the Ancient House (preserved by the authorities as a reminder of the bad old days).

At this point the story grows a bit muddy. Rebellion breaks out, one that to the reader is as confusing as actual rebellions must be to real-life rebels.

The ending I will leave to you to discover, except to say that here again Orwell may have borrowed freely: betrayal of loved ones, cruelty for its own sake, ritualistic execution and boot-licking adoration of a godlike leader with his boot on his followers’ necks.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.


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