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1920s Books in Translation Science Fiction

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

 Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown

Five words from the blurb: dystopia, totalitarian, masterpiece, individual, freedom

I hadn’t heard of this book until Michelle recommended it on my Literary Science Fiction post, but I’m so pleased that she bought it to my attention as I feel it is one of the most important dystopian fiction novels ever written.

We was originally written in 1921, but was suppressed in Russia and so first published in English, French and Czech, before finally being published in Russian in 1988. We is recognised to have been the inspiration behind George Orwell’s classic 1984, but on reading it I spotted key ideas that I’d read in many other books.

The plot follows D-503 (everyone is given a unique number, not a name) who lives in a totalitarian society built entierly from glass (so they can be spied on more easily). All aspects of life are controlled to the extent that everyone must get up, work and eat at exactly the same times each day. D-503 begins to have dreams and question the society he lives in. Everything changes when he discovers that there are other humans living outside OneState – haired humans who live free amongst the animals….

The book is very readable and hasn’t dated at all. It is amazing to think that it was written 90 years ago as most of the ideas and fears still hold true for us today. The book was packed with thought-provoking quotes: 

But, my dear readers, you’ll have to do just a little thinking. It helps a lot. Because, you know, all human history, as far back as we know it, is the history of moving from nomadic life to a more settled way of life. So, doesn’t it follow that the most settled form of life (ours) is by the same token the most perfect form of life (ours)?  If people used to wander over the earth from one end to the other, that only happened in prehistoric times, when there were nations and wars and trade discoveries of this and that America. But why do it now? Who needs it?

I was gripped throughout, but have to admit that a few things went over my head. I would have benefited from having a reading guide to explain some of the weirder sections, but I’m sure this is one of those books that gets better with each re-reading.

The only problem with this book was that I didn’t develop an emotional attachment to any of the characters. I was interested to see what would happen to them, but didn’t really care about their fate.

I think it is important for anyone interested in dystopian fiction to read this book, but if you after an emotional response to events then you need to look elsewhere.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

I’m glad I read We for the historical and contextual value as a dystopia, but I didn’t love it. Rebecca Reads

….the longer We went on, the more it reminded me of The Famished Road by Ben Okri with its endless blending of colour and dream. Books, Time, and Silence

…one of the weirdest, most disorienting things I’ve ever read. The Zen Leaf

53 replies on “We – Yevgeny Zamyatin”

Thanks for reminding me of this book. It’s been recommended to me before, and I still haven’t read it. I’ll have to move it higher up the list to read.

This one is in my pile, and will get promoted as soon as I can find it! I’m trying to make an effort to read more of the books that have influenced more modern writers (not necessarily 19thC classics) and this is one of them that I must read as a fan of dystopian novels.

Annabel, Me too. I often struggle to enjoy the older classics, but it is nice to read those more modern books which have been a big influence too. My only problem is that I often don’t know which ones they are – hopefully I’ll find out gradually.

It’s good to see “We” getting this recognition – it tends to live in the shadow of “1984”, even though it preceded Orwell’s novel.

I can also highly recommend Zamyatin’s short story collection “The Dragon and Other Stories”, set in the cheerless years immediately following the Russian Revolution – in fact, I enjoyed this collection more than “We”, and it has some of the emotional connection “We” lacks.

Tim Jones, I agree it is sad that few people know about this book. I was made to study 1984 in school and We was never even mentioned. I think We is the much better book, having none of those long, dull ‘book within a book’ sections. Hopefully more people will be made aware of it in future.

I never heard of this book, but thanks for bringing it to my attention. When I started reading, the first thing I thought of was the old Fritz Lang film Metropolis, even though they are somewhat different.
Sounds like an interesting book.

Alex, I haven’t heard of Metropolis so I’m afraid I can’t compare the two for you, but I will look up Metropolis as if it is anything like this book then I want to watch it!

Amanda, I can see it being the same for me too. I’m sure that in a few months I’ll have forgotten about the weird bits and only remember those vivid scenes. I hope your rereading experience is a good one.

Donovan, I’m afraid I haven’t read Brave New World yet – it is very high on my priority list, so hopefully I’ll be able to answer that question for you in a month or two.

If you haven’t already, you should link this up over at Lenore’s as she is having Dystopian February over at her place! This sounds like it is the mother of the dystopian novel. And a decent translation it looks like.

Sandy, Thanks for the reminder about Lenore’s Feb. I’ll go and add the link later.

I think the translation is very good. It never felt Russian and could easily have been set/written in any country/language.

I feel as though I should have heard of this novel. It does sound interesting, but it also sounds like something I’d rather see the film version of than read the book. I do still need to make my through some of your other literary science fiction recommendations though!

Carrie, I’m not sure that it would work well on film. I think the beauty is in the ideas raised and they wouldn’t be as powerful on screen – there isn’t enough action for a good film to be produced. I agree that this might not be the best place to start a journey into science fiction though – perhaps once you’ve read a few different ones you might be tempted to give We a try.

I read this book last year for my Political Science Fiction class and just could not get into it. Everybody else in my class seemed to love it so I guess I missed something. Or maybe, like you, I was never able to develop an emotional attachment to the characters. Obviously, it bother me more than you.

Christina, This is the sort of book that I wish I had read in a class as I’m sure you gain so much from being told things about it that straight reading would miss. Perhaps looking into it too closely spoiled the magic for you? Nevermind – we can’t like them all. :-)

I’ve never heard of this one! I’m very intrigued now especially with it being written by a Russian author– I don’t think I’ve ever read a Russian dystopian!

She, If you are after a Russian dystopian then you might be dissapointed as it doesn’t feel at all Russian, but I’m sure that doesn’t matter – it is wonderful anyway :-)

This sounds AMAZING. I LOVE dystopian fiction and have been thinking I should re-read 1984 at some point this year, but now I am chomping at the bit to get my hands on this instead. I think this could be another title that gets me back to thinking more favorably about Russian authors…

Steph, It is well worth reading this instead of a 1984 re-read. I think you will love it and I’m sure it will persuade you that some Russian authors are wonderful :-)

We has been on my wish-list for some time and I’ve especially been wanting to read it after re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. Hopefully this year.
What I love about dystopian (or is it dystopic?) literature is how there are often so many nods to other books in the genre, that each books builds upon the others.
With the dream sequences, it sounds as if We brings in some magical realism.

Claire, Sorry – I replied to this comment ages ago, but it must not have gone through :-(

I think that you will enjoy reading this one – there are sections of magical realism for you to enjoy and the number of dystopian influences is impressive. It is sad that so few people know about it.

Glad to hear you enjoyed it! This was on the reading list for an elective course I took several years ago on Classic Sci Fi and Fantasy and I was thrilled with it. It’s one of those that I pick up whenever I see an “extra” copy in second-hand shops (I’m sure you have those books too), but I’m definitely due for a re-read.

BuriedInPrint, I have a lot of books like that!! I’m surprised you find many copies of this one though – I wouldn’t have thought many made it into the second hand shops! It is good that you got to study it – I think there were a lot of references I’ll have missed and I’m sure a class would make me appreicate its brilliance even more.

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