You want to (re)read “1984”? Read “WE” – Orwell says so…

We is a cultish science fiction classic from an obscure Russian author, Zamyatin. we_captureIt’s a sparse read, it plods, and it has -fittingly- few flurries of memorable phrasing…

“I smiled, looking into the pupils of her eyes. I followed first one eye and then the other, and in each of them I saw myself, a millimetric self imprisoned in those tiny rainbow cells.”

Yet its driving idea lives today, as strongly as ever given that 1984 is back on bestseller lists. The startling fact is that We was written almost a century ago. It still beats a lot of half-baked and over-hyped dystopias that are getting churned out today. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to 1984‘s own, Mr Orwell…

Some 70 years back, Orwell penned a review of We – summing up the book neatly in a line:

“…a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again.”

That’s a line which could pique the interest of any reader (like me) with one eye on the near future, or as an antecedent AI tale (the rise of machines etc)… or, more presently, anyone interested in 1984-style Big Brother tactics and today’s weird world of ‘alternate facts’.

I feel kindred to Orwell’s take on the book, so below is the full text from the great man: the review of We by Orwell, apparently penned in 1946 – prior to drafting his classic 1984. Enjoy:

Several years after hearing of its existence, I have at last got my hands on a copy of Zamyatin’s We, which is one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age. Looking it up in Gleb Struve’s Twenty-Five Years of Soviet Russian Literature, I find its history to have been this:

Zamyatin, who died in Paris in 1937, was a Russian novelist and critic who published a number of books both before and after the Revolution. We was written about 1923, and though it is not about Russia and has no direct connection with contemporary politics–it is a fantasy dealing with the twenty-sixth century AD–it was refused publication on the ground that it was ideololgically(*) undesirable.

A copy of the manuscript found its way out of the country, and the book has appeared in English, French and Czech translations, but never in Russian. The English translation was published in the United States, and I have never been able to procure a copy: but copies of the French translation (the title is Nous Autres) do exist, and I have at last succeeded in borrowing one. So far as I can judge it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one, and it is astonishing that no English publisher has been enterprising enough to reissue it.

The first thing anyone would notice about We is the fact–never pointed out, I believe–that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partly derived from it. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence. The atmosphere of the two books is similar, and it is roughly speaking the same kind of society that is being described though Huxley’s book shows less political awareness and is more influenced by recent biological and psychological theories.

In the twenty-sixth century, in Zamyatin’s vision of it, the inhabitants of Utopia have so completely lost their individuality as to be known only by numbers. They live in glass houses (this was written before television was invented), which enables the political police, known as the “Guardians”, to supervise them more easily. They all wear identical uniforms, and a human being is commonly referred to either as “a number” or “a unif” (uniform). They live on synthetic food, and their usual recreation is to march in fours while the anthem of the Single State is played through loudspeakers.

At stated intervals they are allowed for one hour (known as “the sex hour”) to lower the curtains round their glass apartments. There is, of course, no marriage, though sex life does not appear to be completely promiscuous. For purposes of love-making everyone has a sort of ration book of pink tickets, and the partner with whom he spends one of his allotted sex hours signs the counterfoil.

The Single State is ruled over by a personage known as The Benefactor, who is annually re-elected by the entire population, the vote being always unanimous. The guiding principle of the State is that happiness and freedom are incompatible. In the Garden of Eden man was happy, but in his folly he demanded freedom and was driven out into the wilderness. Now the Single State has restored his happiness by removing his freedom.

So far the resemblance with Brave New World is striking. But though Zamyatin’s book is less well put together–it has a rather weak and episodic plot which is too complex to summarise–it has a political point which the other lacks. In Huxley’s book the problem of “human nature” is in a sense solved, because it assumes that by pre-natal treatment, drugs and hypnotic suggestion the human organism can be specialised in any way that is desired. A first-rate scientific worker is as easily produced as an Epsilon semi-moron, and in either case the vestiges of primitive instincts, such as maternal feeling or the desire for liberty, are easily dealt with.

At the same time no clear reason is given why society should be stratified in the elaborate way it is described. The aim is not economic exploitation, but the desire to bully and dominate does not seem to be a motive either. There is no power hunger, no sadism, no hardness of any kind. Those at the top have no strong motive for staying at the top, and though everyone is happy in a vacuous way, life has become so pointless that it is difficult to believe that such a society could endure.

Zamyatin’s book is on the whole more relevant to our own situation. In spite of education and the vigilance of the Guardians, many of the ancient human instincts are still there. The teller of the story, D-503, who, though a gifted engineer, is a poor conventional creature, a sort of Utopian Billy Brown of London Town, is constantly horrified by the atavistic* impulses which seize upon him. He falls in love (this is a crime, of course) with a certain I-330 who is a member of an underground resistance movement and succeeds for a while in leading him into rebellion.

When the rebellion breaks out it appears that the enemies of The Benefactor are in fact fairly numerous, and these people, apart from plotting the overthrow of the State, even indulge, at the moment when their curtains are down, in such vices as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. D-503 is ultimately saved from the consequences of his own folly.

The authorities announce that they have discovered the cause of the recent disorders: it is that some human beings suffer from a disease called imagination. The nerve-centre responsible for imagination has now been located, and the disease can be cured by X-ray treatment. D-503 undergoes the operation, after which it is easy for him to do what he has known all along that he ought to do–that is, betray his confederates to the police. With complete equanimity he watches I-330 tortured by means of compressed air under a glass bell:

She looked at me, her hands clasping the arms of the chair, until her eyes were completely shut. They took her out, brought her to herself by means of an electric shock, and put her under the bell again. This operation was repeated three times, and not a word issued from her lips. The others who had been brought along with her showed themselves more honest. Many of them confessed after one application. Tomorrow they will all be sent to the Machine of The Benefactor.

The Machine of The Benefactor is the guillotine. There are many executions in Zamyatin’s Utopia. They take place publicly, in the presence of The Benefactor, and are accompanied by triumphal odes recited by the official poets. The guillotine, of course, is not the old crude instrument but a, much, improved model which literally liquidates its victim, reducing him in an instant to a puff of smoke and a pool of clear water.

The execution is, in fact, a human sacrifice, and the scene describing it is given deliberately the colour of the sinister slave civilisations of the ancient world. It is this intuitive grasp of the irrational side of totalitarianism–human sacrifice, cruelty as an end in itself, the worship of a Leader who is credited with divine attributes–that makes Zamyatin’s book superior to Huxley’s.

It is easy to see why the book was refused publication. The following conversation (I abridge it slightly) between D-503 and I-330 would have been quite enough to set the blue pencils working:

“Do you realise that what you are suggesting is revolution?”

“Of course, it’s revolution. Why not?”

“Because there can’t be a revolution. Our revolution was the last and there can never be another. Everybody knows that.”

“My dear, you’re a mathematician: tell me, which is the last number?”

“But that’s absurd. Numbers are infinite. There can’t be a last one.”

“Then why do you talk about the last revolution?”

There are other similar passages. It may well be, however, that Zamyatin did not intend the Soviet regime to be the special target of his satire. Writing at about the time of Lenin’s death, he cannot have had the Stalin dictatorship in mind, and conditions in Russia in 1923 were not such that anyone would revolt against them on the ground that life was becoming too safe and comfortable.

What Zamyatin seems to be aiming at is not any particular country but the implied aims of industrial civilisation. I have not read any of his other books, but I learn from Gleb Struve that he had spent several years in England and had written some blistering satires on English life. It is evident from We that he had a strong leaning towards primitivism. Imprisoned by the Czarist Government in 1906, and then imprisoned by the Bolsheviks in 1922 in the same corridor of the same prison, he had cause to dislike the political regimes he had lived under, but his book is not simply the expression of a grievance. It is in effect a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again.

This is a book to look out for when an English version appears.

(*) “ideololgically” is an original typo from 1946. I have no knowledge if this was Orwell himself, or a transcriber, or typesetter, or editor, or some other source. But given the rise of “lol” in our brave new world of abbreviated text speak and short-cut lingo, this typo made me smile. 


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