Today, I will continue my focus on Dystopian novels with a review of what many believe is the grandfather of the modern dystopia, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I will be abandoning my typical Review Structure, and taking an expanded look at this classic novel.
Translated by Clarence Brown
Read by Grover Gardner
Length: 6 Hrs 56 Min
Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction
Quick Thoughts: We has everything the lover of modern dystopias would want, from romance, and sex, to humor and adventure and its devastating ending will stay with you for a long time. There is a reason why many consider We to be the grandfather of the modern dystopia, and I personally feel that any fan of dystopian fiction will only enhance their appreciation of the subgenre by experiencing this novel.
I first fell in love with Dystopian novels in my teenage years. As with many high school students of my generation, 1984 and Brave New World were required reading and my first real introduction to the dystopian subgenre. I was happy that my middle school required me to read these novels, but I’m not sure, at that age, if I truly appreciated them. I don’t think, in the environment I lived in, that I could truly grasps the subtleties of what these dystopian classics were trying to portray. I first read We by Yevgeny Zamyatin when I was 15 years old. I was told that it was the inspiration for Orwell’s work, and I gave it a go. I loved it of course, but looking back, I think I may have loved it for many of the wrong reasons. I remember thinking that the stories main protagonist, D-503 was a moron. He spends much of the narrative talking about how much better life is when the state controls every aspect of your life. D-503 was a man of logic and reason, and believed that true happiness could never be achieved by this ridiculous notion freedom. I scoffed at this, because, I knew freedom was great. I knew this because I grew up free, and my teachers, and pastors and favorite celebrities all told me that being free was great. Recently, I read a point/counterpoint series of blog posts on a popular dystopian series. One person found it totally unbelievable that a group of people, oppressed and hungry, would choose to go along with the seemingly illogical dictates of the ruling class. The 15 year old Bob, who grew up on stories of the Revolutionary War and movies like Red Dawn, where we all leaned that fighting oppression is the natural way, would have cheered this sentiment. Heck, I probably would have been wearing my "Give me liberty or give me death" t-shirt while doing my cheering, happy in the knowledge that I lived in a country that valued freedom. Always had, and always would.
I decided to give revisit this novel in audiobook form, when I found out about Presenting Lenore’s Dystopian February. This event was just the thing I needed to revisit some dystopian classics, and read or listen to some I may have neglected. It has been 22 years since I first read this novel. The first thing I realized is how ironic my initial view of D-503 was. I grew up in an evangelical protestant conservative community. We believed in God and Country. I knew that while America wasn’t perfect, only God held that distinction, it was better than any other country on the planet. I was a product of my environment, surrounding myself with people who perpetuated my beliefs. I remember the first phone call to my new college roommate, the shock that hit me when I realized that despite the fact that he was also a Christian, he wasn’t a supporter of George Bush. Like D-503, I believe in the logic of my universe, because it made sense to me. People didn’t question my beliefs, so I didn’t question them either.
We was written in 1921 by a Russian author who lived through the turmoil of the Russian revolutions in 1905 and 1917. It is set in the highly regimented society called OneState, overseen by The Benefactor. OneState is a walled city, highly industrialized, and totally separated from nature. The citizens live according to The Table, with every hour planned and every activity scheduled. The Table told you when to eat, when to sleep, when to take a walk, and when to have sex. There are two hours a day for free time and D-503 longs for the day when even those hours are controlled by The Benefactor. In OneState, nobody has a name, but a number and everyone wore the same uniform. D-503 is a mathematician and the designer of the great space ship Integral, which will be taking the wonder that is OneState to the stars. He begins his journal, which makes up the text of this novel, as an expression of love for his state, and its Benefactor. Yet, at the celebration for the great spaceship, he meets a women I-330, who is unlike anyone he has met. She is unpredictable and throws D-503’s previously ordered life, into a spiral of self doubt and questioning of his core beliefs.
Zamyatin takes on many issues of his day, from oppression of the people in the name of people, to social Darwinism and Eugenics. I was surprised how fresh this book actually is. For a novel written over 90 years ago, it is highly appropriate for many of the issues we are dealing with today with the advances in science, and the attempts to balance safety with freedom. We is also full of humor, which was another aspect I didn’t remember from my initial reading. D-503 so fervently believes in OneState, and its regimented Table, that it was laugh out loud funny at moments. I think a lot of the credit for this can also be placed on narrator Grover Gardner who reads it with a wry wit, delivering the absurdity of D-503 statements with the vocal equivalent of a straight face. Another aspect of this novel that is surprising is the strength and modernity of I-330. One of the things I often struggle with when reading classic science fiction is the roles of women. Often, even the strong women portrayed in these novels, comes off out of place for a modern reader. I-330 is not just unpredictable and outrageous, but is the strongest character in the novel, full of self assuredness and a true understanding of who she is. It’s obvious why D-503 becomes obsessed with her.
For those intimidated by a Russian novel written in the 1920’s don’t be. This translation is very accessible, and very readable. We doesn’t feel Russian, but more in the style of the English Dystopian classics. The audiobook version is well produced, and narrator Grover Gardner is excellent as always. He truly gives D-503 an authentic voice, and handles some of the trickier moments, like the substitute of the word “number” for person or people, and the use of the numbers as proper names, seamlessly. It has everything the lover of modern dystopias would want, from romance, and sex, to humor and adventure and its devastating ending will stay with you for a long time. There is a reason why many consider We to be the grandfather of the modern dystopia, and I personally feel that any fan of dystopian fiction will only enhance their appreciation of the subgenre by experiencing this novel.
One word of warning, there is a forward by the translator Clarence Brown that I found interesting and quite informative. It contains a lot of information of why he chose certain word choices and phrasings in the novel. I highly recommend giving it a listen, but I suggest maybe waiting to after listening to the text of the novel due to some significant story spoilers.