In my last review of a scifi novel I mentioned that I should have read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” earlier, and now I finally have. I first heard of it from a foreword in Orwell’s “1984”, which was explicitly inspired by We. There’s a good reason I was assigned that & “Brave New World” in school rather than We, and it’s not just because those were originally written in English rather than Russian. In his attempt to make the novel feel not contemporary (even if the whole genre was about heightening recent tendencies in industrial society to an extreme), Zamyatin adopts the very alien voice of a true-believer in the dystopian futuristic One State keeping a diary intended for the “Integral” spaceship he’s building to spread the One State to foreign planets. The chapters (which always begin with keywords, except when their author fails to come up with any) are fortunately short (and the book as a whole was only about 200 pages), but their inaccessible nature makes it far from a page turner. Even as builder D-503 gets corrupted by the subversive woman I-330 (everyone has a name consisting of a letter followed by 3 digits), he doesn’t become a normal person more relatable to the reader. He just falls apart at the seams and his writing becomes more difficult to understand, with more paragraphs ending in ellipses than any book I can recall.

One of the themes of the book is thinking based on math, which is supposed to reflect D-503’s occupation as an engineer (which Zamyatin had also been). Math is an ideal for such a true-believer because it is based on abstractions, and D often seems to reduce people to geometric shapes. One odd bit is his horror at the square root of negative one, due to it being “irrational”. Technically it is, because it cannot be expressed as a ratio between integers, but normally it would be referred to as “imaginary”, separate from the real irrational numbers. I’m not sure if that was a result of translation, or if math was taught differently in Tsarist Russia.

Zamyatin himself had been a Bolshevik revolutionary repeatedly arrested by Tsarist authorities, and became a left-dissident rather early on the Bolshevik’s taking power (before the Civil War even finished). Like Max Stirner, he traces modern socialism (even sexual partners are shared here via bureaucratic process) state back to Christianity despite any avowed atheism on the part of the socialists. The “Benefactor” here in charge of the One State is rather open in acknowledging that though.

One major difference between We & 1984 is that the latter’s world-building contained three different rival states with differently named but similar totalitarian ideologies (prefiguring the Sino-Soviet split before the Chinese Civil War even ended). We takes place after a long period of war devastated the planet, with the protagonist initially believing there were no humans beyond the “Green Wall” sealing off the one city from nature. The implications of this history is a much smaller number of living people (perhaps that’s how they can manage with such a limited selection of names), but this is officially considered a good thing by the One State because they reject the Repugnant Conclusion and valorize perfect “happiness” of the surviving people over more people living. The lack of competition from any states other than the One implies that it wouldn’t undergo the process of cultural selection that characterized earlier human progress and could feasibly persist as a permanent dystopia. Zamyatin is less pessimistic than Orwell, and seems to agree with I-330 that “no revolution is final”, allowing her subversives some degree of success. Still the introduction of “the Operation” to remove the part of the brain responsible for imagination implies that the One State could completely eradicate any internal dissent.

I hesitate to actually recommend the book, since as noted it’s not all that readable. My next non-fiction read is Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee”, and then afterward I think I’ll return to dystopian scifi to finally tackle my first Ayn Rand novel (after mocking her from a Stirnerite perspective for a foreword to “The Myth of Natural Rights”): “Anthem”.