Today’s topic in the Buccaneer Blogfest is a book review. I’m using one of the book reviews from my old Angelfire site, of Yevgeniy Ivanovich Zamyatin’s classic, underrated dystopia We, which I read in my Modern Russian Lit class my junior year of uni. As I’ve posted about before, I’m rather annoyed at how the word “dystopia” has taken on a meaning it didn’t originally have, but this novel definitely fits the older, classic definition of a dystopian society. I originally wrote this review (now somewhat edited to remove potential spoilers) probably sometime in 2004.
This classic dystopian novel isn’t as well-known as 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and BNW, but its vision of the future is just as chilling and pertinent. It’s by Yevgéniy Ivánovich Zamyatin, with the original title Yedinoye Gosudarstvo, or OneState.
The novel is in the form of notes written by D-503, the builder of the spaceship INTEGRAL. D-503 is a mathematician following government orders to write or create something honouring OneState for the people on the unknown worlds they’re going to colonise and brainwash. However, his planned mathematical poem takes a turn for the unexpected when he meets and begins falling insanely in love with an exciting, mysterious, nonconformist woman, I-330.
Up till now, he’s been exclusive (we assume) with the lovely O-90 for at least three years, sharing her with his best friend R-13, though O-90 only loves D-503 and doesn’t view sex with R-13 as an act of love. In this world, unlike in BNW, people aren’t discouraged from sleeping with the same person for too long of a period of time. Though unlike in BNW, they have to get clearance in the form of Sex Day tickets, have to register for the Numbers they wish to sleep with, and have to get a physiological test to determine when their Sex Days should be.
Everything is accounted for in this world, even what everyone should be doing nearly every hour of the day, like chewing 50 times per each mouthful of food. People have children naturally instead of hatching them out of bottles, though it’s still a government activity, and the children are turned over to be raised by the State. They have Maternal and Paternal Norms; O-90 is “about ten centimeters shorter than the Maternal Norm.”
The only other important characters are the mysterious, snaky figure of S, an old woman who guards the Ancient House, and U, who guards D-503’s building and has a pathetic, bizarre case of unrequited love for him, even thinking he loves her back. These two old women, coupled with a brief discussion of Púshkin and two mentions of a bust of him in the Ancient House, are the closest things that might be considered Russian. They don’t have Russian names, they don’t eat Russian food, they live in glass houses, they don’t discuss Russian history or authors, nothing. It gives the work a universal quality, and drives home the point that in a State such as this, all traces of nationality and ethnic identity have been wiped out in favour of a collective generic identity predetermined by the Benefactor.
After his meeting with I-330, D-503 starts becoming ill and having more and more unorthodox thoughts. He has discovered his imagination and Soul, and has started having dreams. Nobody in this world dreams; the government stamped them out ages ago, after the 200-Years War. They also recently developed an operation to get rid of the imagination.
I-330 is a very liberated woman by 1920s standards, when the book was written; she drinks, smokes, is very sexually liberated, and sometimes wears forbidden clothing. She also spends a lot of time at the Ancient House, which is something like a museum and the only real house left in this small world of glass houses. I-330 doesn’t mind lying to authorities, like when she gets Sick Day passes so she and D-503 can have sex in the Ancient House instead of going to work. She can also play the piano and isn’t afraid to go behind the Green Wall (similar to the “savage reservation” in BNW). O-90 can’t help but notice that her main squeeze has taken another woman into his heart, and is heartbroken.
The ending of this short dystopian novel is very chilling, similar in scope to the ending of 1984. It tells a tale of what might happen if we surrender our individuality to the dream of a collective state which regulates everything, from time management to nature to technology to human sexuality and even childbearing.