By Yevgeny Zamyatin
Grade Levels: 9+ and Adults
This month’s book may be one of the oldest we’ve recommended on this series. We was originally written in Russian by Zamyatin in 1921, four years after the Bolshevik Revolution. But the novel was not published in Zamyatin’s home country until 1988, over 50 years after his death. Its first publication was actually in translation, in English, in 1924. It’s disputed exactly how much We influenced future dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But what is undeniable is that the work launched a genre of dystopian fiction that continues up to this day in novels like the popular Hunger Games series.
The modern dystopian novel is in many ways a reaction to the ever-broadening, ever-deepening influence of the state in the lives of the individual. And it is perhaps no surprise that this genre which defines itself in reaction to totalitarianism emerged in Russia shortly after the birth of the first state with truly totalitarian ambitions. In it, Zamyatin explores many themes that will be familiar to lovers of Huxley, Atwood, or Suzanne Collins.
The book envisions a post-apocalyptic human society, where a great war has decimated the population of the Earth. This aspect of the book is especially prescient for a novel written over two decades before the first use of an atomic bomb. The story follows protagonist D-503: a human living under the One State ruled over by the all-powerful 'Benefactor.' In this society, humans become cogs in the machine of the state, valued only for their ability to contribute to the state. Their names are consciously shaped after equipment model numbers and they live in transparent glass apartments without any privacy - all the better to be monitored.
Zamyatin uses love as a stand-in for the individual impulse and individualism. This symbolism works quite well, and is likely why it was adapted in one form or another in most of the other novels listed above. D-503 begins a forbidden romance with I-330 and is pulled from his life as a spacecraft engineer and satisfied cog into the orbit of the “Mephi,” a resistance movement fighting against the One State. I will not mention more about the ending, but for those of you familiar with the genre this book helped create, you can probably guess that it is at best bittersweet.
Despite having been written over a century ago, this novel still has something to say that is sharply relevant to our everyday lives. Whether it’s the Stalinist-style repression of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the consumerist omnipresence of Brave New World, or the religious fundamentalism of The Handmaid’s Tale, these stories all point to the eternal conflict between the individual and society. We asks us to consider who we are and how we can possibly define ourselves in a world that is becoming ever more complex, ever more interconnected, and ever more inescapable.