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by Yevgeny Zamyatin (Avon)

Review by John Gabree

The narrator of this classic anti-utopian novel can comfortably use the pronoun ‘we.’ Any residual inclination to individualism that might have survived the regimentation of society in the 20th Century has been eradicated by an autocracy presided over by the Benefactor. Society is organized into the United States, a glass-enclosed Sparta whose inhabitants are the remnant of a civilization left after the last great war.

Individualism is a crime so heinously antisocial as to be nearly unthinkable. In the name of order and harmony, all aspects of life have been regulated. Every impediment to happiness, every source of conflict and dissatisfaction, has been eliminated, except the imagination. Even personal names have given way to numbers. The narrator, D-503, a mathematician and builder of the spaceship Integral, which will extend the dominion of United States throughout the universe, believes unquestionably in this world, until he finds his faith threatened and undermined by a violent romantic passion.

There are big issues being examined in these pages: questions about the organization of society, about freedom, alienation, identity. Writing in 1922-23, just as the outlines of the modern Soviet state were beginning to emerge and before the rise of Nazism, Zamyatin was able to anticipate the deadening impact of totalitarianism carried to its logical extreme. But he also understood the doggedness of human resistance to regimentation. Even with their number-names, these characters retain their individuality and their humanity.

In the shock of discovering the passionate "self" within, D-503 seeks out a doctor to help rid him of this terrifying malady. "You're in a bad way!" says the doctor. "Apparently you have developed a soul." Is it very dangerous? the patient wonders. "Incurable," snaps the doctor. Fortunately a cure is found, a simple frontal-lobotomy-like procedure to remove the locus of infection -- the imagination!

"We" is one of the great works of science fiction and a masterpiece of speculative political philosophy. Many political novels of this century, including George Orwell's "1984," are its offspring. It gathers its impact not only from the force of its political vision (for Zamyatin foresaw the evils of 20th-century totalitarianism with the clairvoyance of a gypsy fortuneteller), but from its artistry. Far more than “Brave New World” or “1984,” it is a hopeful book. At the end, despite the best efforts of those in power, the ideal of freedom burns undiminished in the human soul. (1982)

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