Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Book Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Pros: interesting ideas, historical significance

Cons: unsympathetic characters, disjointed narrative, scarce descriptions

D-503, builder of the INTEGRAL, the space ship that will bring the OneState to the stars, starts this missive with the intent of including it in the propaganda transported by the ship.  But his treatise on the virtues of the OneState gets hijacked when the mysterious I-330 crosses his path.  Suddenly his writing is more about dreams and hopes than the realities of life and the happiness brought by a lack of freedom.

The fun of reading dystopian fiction is seeing how things run in this 'perfect' society.  We is surprisingly lacking in this regard.  We learn that buildings are made of glass (with blinds that can be lowered only for scheduled - and approved - sexual encounters), that lives are carefully regulated with the exception of two personal hours each day, and how crimes are punished.  There's a glass wall keeping the outside world out and people eat a manufactured petroleum product.  But there's no information about how children are authorized and raised (I say 'authorized' because one character becomes pregnant illegally).  There's little description about the work D-503 does, though it's quite important to the state.  There are only vague references to what is taught in the auditoriums each evening.  In other words, you get tantalizing images but no full picture of life in the OneState.

The writing style is first person narration, but the narrator has trouble forming complete thoughts - or at least, writing the ends of his thoughts down.  The reader must constantly work at understanding his meaning, which isn't always easy.  This is especially noticeable when recounting conversations.

The characters aren't very sympathetic.  I felt sorry for O-90, but really disliked I-330 and even D-503 became irritating in his lack of clarity and indecision.  I wasn't sure how to take the description of R-13 and his 'African lips' (one of the few character descriptions given).  It's unclear if he's actually African (and therefore the society is multiracial) or if he just has large lips.  I-330 seems too mercenary in her actions and, given his narrative style, it's impossible to tell if she is just using D-503 or if she honestly cares for him in some way.

While some of the ideas posited were interesting, this isn't a book I can recommend outside its historical significance as one of the (or even the?) first dystopian novels.  Many of the themes and plot points used in We are also used in the more readable - and more famous - 1984.  Given the choice between the two, I'd suggest 1984.

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