I really wanted to like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. It’s a classic science fiction novel, written in 1920 – 1921, in Russian, but suppressed by the Communists, and published in French and English (in America, in 1924). It’s one of the earliest novels that chronicles a totalitarian state, which has been engineered to provide a Modernist utopia.
The idea of the Modernist utopia was big in the 1920s and 1930s, it foresaw the possibility of a world created by engineers and scientists, amazing ingenuity and technologies, providing solutions for public health and welfare, but there was always the underlying fear that people would reject its uniformity and, instead, prefer something more ‘messy’. In a way, it was predicting the 1950s faith in science. In simple terms, it was a tension between the civilised ideal and the inner ‘savage’ (to borrow a word from that era). Novels like We and Brave New World epitomised this intellectual anxiety.
I wrote my undergraduate theses on the satirical drawings, paintings and writing of Wyndham Lewis, and, We reminded me of Blast! (1914) with its bombastic language (I became interested in Wyndham Lewis through Mark E Smith and the indie band, The Fall, whose lyrics were partly influenced by Blast!). Vorticism and Futurism were interested in representing the modern world through Modernist art, reflecting engineering, mechanisation, and mass production, and the glamour of speed.
Although, We is one of the first novels of its kind and it contains many brilliant ideas (a totalitarian police state, people living in glass buildings, an X-ray lobotomy, execution by vaporisation, a post-privacy society, ticketed sex sessions as a leisure activity, the collectivist power of the group, the loss of individuality, characters who have numbers instead of names), its delivery lacks drama.
Some of the problem comes down to its age (it was written 100 years ago), and its an odd fusion of bombast and woodenness. Stylistically it’s a product of its time. There’s a lot of overblown Modernist enthusiasm, redundant chapter sub-headings, and hyperbolic gothic-style language! And! Exclamation marks!
I feel sad for being mean about this novel. It might have been brilliant in the 1920s, but I’m reading it now, and it feels dated. It’s like a parody of Modernist science fiction. Sentences are cut short with an ellipse… WORDS AND SECTIONS OF TEXT ARE WRITTEN IN UPPERCASE.
We is written as a journal and reading it feels like a journal narrated with the overly dramatic voice of a Pathé Newsreel announcer, an irritating crooning that grates on a contemporary ear.
The writing is skeletal. There’s little sense of any change of pace. What could have been its more dramatic moments and amazing world building are stated in a matter-of-fact way without any kind of dramatic embellishment. I found that odd, but not too far removed from popular pulp fiction of the time. (Having said this, We makes the 1930’s pulp fiction series Doc Savage look almost sophisticated.) A writer today would approach this in a completely different way, dramatising the story, building the intrigue and tension. While the stories we tell might not have changed much in a century, the way we tell them has.
And yet, there are loads of brilliant ideas in the novel — a decade before Brave New World, and two decades before 1984.
This new translation feels more up-to-date than the older one (I did glance at that, but opted for this one instead). There’s an introduction by Margaret Atwood, which is interesting. She praises the novel as an influence on 1984, which in-turn influenced The Handmaid’s Tale. George Orwell’s review of We, which he wrote for the Tribune is also included. He came to the same conclusion as me, saying that it’s an inventive and intriguing vision of the future, but the delivery of the narrative is underwhelming. Orwell read the French translation of the novel, and wrote:
...it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one...
I almost wish that I hadn’t read, We, because it was a much better novel in my imagination than in reality. But, I’m glad that I did. Clunky as it is, with its over-egged style, its gothic-inspired (Expressionist?) language, and its dramatic deadness and lack of pace — it is one of those books that I feel I should have read, and now I have.