WE: One Hundred Years Later
By: Andrew Maglio
Nearly 100 years ago, the russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin completed his seminal work, We (translated in French as Nous Autres). Written four years after the ascendency of the Bolshevik party to power in Russia, Zamyatin’s influence from his political and intellectual contexts in undeniable. However, We, unlike George Orwell’s 1945 Animal Farm is far less directly concerned with Russian/Soviet affairs.
We is the story of a utopian society set in the 26th century A.D. After the “apocalyptic” 200-Years War, emerged the society of OneState. In this dystopian world, citizens have lost all individuality, highlighted most clearly by their names: combinations of letters and numbers. All members work in service of their community; the narrator, for example, D-503, is an engineer working on the Integral, a ship set to depart earth. In OneState, humans have nearly fully subjugated nature, a (perhaps implicit) reflection of the growing conservation mentality in the western United States.
The book is written as a series of diary entries. Chapters are about 6-8 pages, and are named for the musings which are discussed within them. Chapter One is entitled “An announcement--The wisest of lines--A poem.” Others include “Ballet--Square harmony--X.” and “The wild man with a barometer--Epilepsy--If.” D-503’s diary entries beautifully demonstrate the randomness of his thoughts--juxtaposed starkly (yet implicitly) with the nearly perfect order in which he externally functions. His constant laudatory remarks for the perfect which his society has achieved in nearly all aspects of life are peculiar as he questions his own place within it.
Many of D-503’s musings are unremarkable when read from a 1921 perspective, but one-hundred years later lend unique insights into trans-generational conciosuness. Zamyatin wrote this novel before the creation of ubiquitous dissemination of nearly all modern appliances. Everything from the automobile to the internet and the cell-phone did not yet exist. Subsequently, Zamyatin’s novella could not and cannot account for them. In contrast to contemporary dystopian works which place technology at the crux of future societal changes, Zamyatin argues that what will change is ultimately how humans are nurtured (and the self-perception).
Zamyatin’s unique brand of “intellectual future” rather than a “technological” one presents 21st-century readers with fascinating questions to ponder. Will the future really be one characterized by the explosion of technology or, rather, a shift in mentality? How will human nature change in 500 years?
Similarly, many technical descriptions/distinctions from We are interestingly enough quite outdated even just one-hundred years later. D-503 ponders what force it will take to defy gravity. How will the Integral depart earth, he wonders? Questions like these have been answered for over half-a-century, and to the modern reader, are more historical than futuristic.
Yet, many of Zamyatin’s messages are timeless: questions of authoritarian power, the place of the individual, the power of love, et cetera are ones that dominate We as well as other books for centuries. At a crucial historical moment, Zamyatin distinctly captured a crossroads of various social, intellectual, and political challenges in a largely timeless setting.
When Zamyatim completed We, he was warned that it would not bode well in the then-contemporary political climate of his country. He covertly circulated it around Russian literary circles, and eventually, after several years, saw its exit from Russia where it was published in France.