“We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin – A Book Review

Dystopian literature is a genre of fictional writing used to explore social and political structures in ‘a dark, nightmare world’.”

‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a dystopian novel set in the distant future. Published first in 1924 in New York, it was not published in Zamyatin’s native Russia for a further six decades due to the political nature of the narrative and the fear the Soviets had over free thought.

The plot of the novel is about a nameless – faceless ‘Number’ in a society perfectly planned by a world government, following a cataclysm which killed more than 99% of the world’s population. In the aftermath of the apocalypse the state decided that each person’s life would be perfectly planned in ‘train schedule’ like precision – moments for waking and eating and working and sleeping; organized for the good of society and using the fear of the apocalypse that came before as justification for the tyranny.

The thing that interests me about early 20th century dystopian literature (‘Brave New World’, ‘1984’, ‘We’, ‘Anthem’) is the ‘bee hive’ nature of their view of perfected society. The underlying assumption is that the collectivists (fascists, communists, socialists) were going to be able to get the “planning” right to be able to order the world – and the only thing that was really objectionable about this was the destruction of self which accompanied; as if ‘self’ were this nasty little seed which, we agree, is not to be lightly sacrificed but if it was things would finally work! That the collectivists could achieve their goals – the elimination of poverty and hunger – but with the unfortunate (but necessary) sacrifice of the ‘ego’.

Today we know that even this dystopian literature was a vehicle for utopianism. The planners will never be able to order the world; even should they enslave us all. The experiments in Cuba and North Korea and USSR and Venezuela all prove to us the fundamental “knowledge problem” associated with the human condition and made real by distant, intrusive government. Ergo, modern dystopian literature (‘Hunger Games’, ‘The 100’, and even my own ‘Dreams of the Defeated’) display mostly post-apocalyptic worlds where elites live in opulent seclusion while controlling a desiccated and barren planet where the ‘proles’ fight it out on the streets of their messy worlds.

Literature shows the spirit and mood of our times. Early dystopian literature taught us to think “We can achieve a perfect society, but at what cost?” Modern dystopianism is more realistic, “Humanity is imperfectable, but there are still those who try – though this is usually a desperate attempt to find a seat on the new Noah’s Arc by admittance to a new elite. The resulting tyranny no longer promises clockwork precision, but only populism;” all this while also acknowledging that continuing on our path of debt and consumption will take us exactly where we think we are going.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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