Translator: Clarence Brown
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Published by Tantor Audio on March 28, 2011 (first published 1924)
Genres: Science Fiction, Dystopia
Length: 6 hrs 51 mins
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In the One State of the great Benefactor, there are no individuals, only numbers. Life is an ongoing process of mathematical precision, a perfectly balanced equation. Primitive passions and instincts have been subdued. Even nature has been defeated, banished behind the Green Wall. But one frontier remains: outer space. Now, with the creation of the spaceship Integral, that frontier—will be subjugated to the beneficent yoke of reason.
One number, D-503, chief architect of the Integral, decides to record his thoughts in the final days before the launch for the benefit of less advanced societies. But a chance meeting with the beautiful I-330 results in an unexpected discovery that threatens everything D-503 believes about himself and the One State. The discovery—or rediscovery— of inner space... and that disease the ancients called the soul.
A page-turning SF adventure, a masterpiece of wit and black humor that accurately predicted the horrors of Stalinism, WE is a classic dystopian novel. Its message of hope and warning is as timely at the end of the twentieth century as it was at the beginning.
To be honest, I had never heard of We by Yevgany Zamyatin, but I was looking for a classic in translation and Sci Fi June was on my mind, which led me to We. I found it on a list of 23 Best Non-English Science Fiction Books at Best Sci Fi Books.com.
We was first published in 1921 and is one of the grandfathers of the satirical futuristic dystopia genre. Zamyatin, born in 1884, was heavily influenced by the turn-of-the-century Russian revolutions and push for industrialization. His is a history of controversial and critical writings, leading to a series of arrests and exiles: first by the Tsarists in 1905, 1911, and 1914; then by the Soviets in 1919 and 1922; and ultimately in 1931 through a self-imposed retreat from Bolshevik censorship. While We does not directly criticize the Soviets, it was unsurprisingly denied publication in Russia and received the dubious honor of being the first book to be banned by Goskomizdat, the Bolshevik censorship bureau. It was smuggled out of the country and first published in 1924 by E. P. Dutton in New York in a translation by Gregory Zilboorg. Its first publication in the Soviet Union had to wait until 1988, when glasnost resulted in it appearing alongside George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
We is set 1,000 years after a revolution that brought the One State into power. Citizens are known only by their number, and the story’s protagonist is D-503, an engineer working on a spaceship that aims to bring the glorious principles of the Revolution to space. This world is ruled by the Benefactor and presided over by the Guardians. They spy on citizens, who all live in apartments made of glass. You could lower the blinds for pink ticket nights, but only for the hour allowed. Trust in the system is absolute. Citizens see themselves as part of a glorious machine, every aspect of their lives regimented and unison.
But then D-503 meets I-330 and she is not like everyone else. As he’s doing his daily writing we see and feel what happens from his point of view. Everyone is not as “happy” as One State would have them believe. Zamyatin has clear themes, but he doesn’t sacrifice his characters. Even though D-503 and I-330 are “numbers,” we get to know them, care about them, hope they get a happy ending—an actual happy ending, not what the One State considers ideal. They don’t, but we’re not left hopeless at the end. “There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.”
If you’re looking for a classic sci-fi read, definitely pick this up. The imagined future of a collective “we” monitoring behaviors, forcing conformity—made easier through social media, dictating what should be done and when, of a nation out of touch with nature, of a “Benefactor” with ultimate authority who is elected again and again . . . Some themes never lose their relevancy.