We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin: Folio Society book review

The word dystopia typically brings to mind the American and British classics of the subgenre: 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451. But years before all those, Russian author Yevgeny Zamytatin wrote a dystopian sci-fi novel that’s arguably their equal: the uniquely disturbing We.

Written in 1921 and first published three years later, We imagines a future of numbered citizens, regulated thought and constant surveillance. The protagonist, an engineer named D-503, is introduced to an underground collective that has plans to bring an end to the state’s tyranny; his conduit is I-330, a woman who introduces D-503 to all the things that are forbidden by the overbearing Benefactor: drinking, sex, cigarettes, even dreaming.

We, in short, bears a remarkable resemblance to 1984 and Brave New World, and it’s a matter of record that George Orwell was heavily indebted to Zamyatin’s novel – Orwell obtained a copy and wrote about it in 1946, roughly three years before the publication of 1984. Orwell also commented on the similarities between We and Huxley’s Brave New World, though he argued that the former was “less well put together” than the latter.

Obviously, the quality of We‘s prose is a matter of opinion; for this writer, its first-person style, full of asides and ellipses, gives the story a kind of rough urgency. Zamyatin has quite a special way of boldly sketching in his characters, too, where the letters in their names reflect their physical appearance. O-90, for example, is described as short and stocky, like an O; another character has a twisted posture that suggests the letter S. The sense of colour and vibrancy, even among such oppressed characters as these, gives the story’s later turns an added emotional wrench that is difficult to forget.

Like the dystopias that emerged after it, We offers a satirical and disturbing glimpse of a possible future. Zamyatin’s One State is dominated by order and numbers – it’s the author’s impression, perhaps, of where an industrialised nation run on hard logic might logically end up in a thousand years’ time. If there’s a ray of hope in We, it’s that such absolute order is impossible as long as there are human beings in the equation. No matter how unbeatable a regime may look, there’ll always be a handful of revolutionaries somewhere – it’s like another law of nature. 

The story behind We is almost as remarkable as the novel itself. Zamyatin was a naval engineer and saw firsthand the Russian Revolution of the early 1900s; arrested twice and exiled to Siberia, he wrote We in an era of huge political and social unrest. In fact, We was the first novel to be banned by the Soviet State’s censorship bureau in 1921, and wasn’t published in that country until 1988. That he’d even dare write such a novel in that climate says a great deal about Zamyatin’s bravery.

Although it’s rarely if ever been out of print in the English language since it was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in 1924, We has never quite enjoyed the widespread acclaim it’s deserved. What it now has, though, is a handsome hardback edition from the Folio Society.

Housed in a matching slipcase, the book’s been given an austere, retro-futuristic design by Kit Russell, whose cover and illustrations reflect the time We was written. One illustration recalls Fritz Lang’s seminal movie, Metropolis – another work that may owe a debt to Zamyatin – while others resemble the geometric precision of Soviet propaganda posters. They’re wonderfully rendered, certainly, though there’s a wonder whether a small splash of colour here and there might have suited the tone of the novel a little better; Zamyatin certainly makes an almost psychedelic use of colour in his text.

The cover and slipcase, meanwhile, absolutely fit with the novel’s more hallucinatory moments, and appear to draw on the work of artist Bridget Riley; the black lines on an acrylic window on the slipcase jive with the cover illustration to create a mesmerising illusion of movement. It’s a simple yet ingenious design – the kind of thing that looks cool on a shelf, but also has a satisfying, tactile quality that warrants picking up and engaging with.

Inside, you’ll also find an introduction written by the late Ursula K Le Gui about the very different forms of censorship that come from a market-driven, democratic west. Although written in 1973, Le Guin’s essay remains as relevant as ever – much like Zamyatin’s novel. (If there’s a criticism worth levelling at this edition of We, it’s that a few more essays like Le Guin’s would have added even greater value.)

If you’re a fan of science fiction, it’s possible you already own a copy of We – in all likelihood, a dog-eared paperback edition like the one sitting on your humble writer’s shelf. But as a timeless work of fiction, We arguably deserves this kind of lavish treatment; it’s a lovingly-made edition of a true dystopian classic.

The Folio Society edition of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, introduced by Ursula K. Le Guin and illustrated by Kit Russell, is available exclusively from www.foliosociety.com.

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