by Yevgeny Zamyatin (Avon)
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
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
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)