BOOK REVIEW: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

we.jpg

Translated By: Charles E. Gannon

Publisher: Penguin

Genre: Dystopia

Pages: 258

Publication Date: 1924 (This translation 1993)

Verdict: 2/5

OneState has eradicated all want. All envy. All greed. The world is united under OneState, but the mission does not stop there. Now OneState reaches for the stars, to bring perfection to other worlds . . .

I don’t like dystopias. Now that may sound obvious to you. After all, is not the point of a dystopia that it is unpleasant? But I don’t mean that I wouldn’t like to live in one. I mean that I don’t enjoy reading about them. There are two reasons for this. the first is that some don’t actually sound that bad. What’s that, your job is chosen at birth and you work it until death? Sounds a lot like working in agriculture to me, and who doesn’t like a bit of job security? But the bigger problem is that when you make a dystopia, you make everything bad. Jobs are bad. Romance is bad. Life is bad. Bad, bad, bad. That monotony grows boring very quickly, and it has to be something very special to pull me into a book that is open about its dystopian nature.

But this past month I’ve been reading a lot of classics. I love the history of science fiction almost as much as I like science fiction itself. Finding the roots of all these modern branches is fun for me, and so We came to my attention. One of the original dystopias? The source of this genre I dislike so intensely? I has to read it for myself. To see if it was a modern trend that kept me away from the genres, or if it was baked into the DNA of the thing. As it turns out, dystopia has always been fairly boring. But there is always merit in seeing why these things don’t work for me.

The idea behind the book is that OneState has ordered its citizens to create art to promote OneState to potential outsiders (ie. New recruits). The problem with this is that under OneState, creativity is stifled, and there are no artists. So one citizen simply records his thoughts as he goes about his daily life, only to begin questioning whether or not he is truly happy with life in OneState. What we get is half travelogue guide to OneStae, and half meditation on the nature of art.

The latter half of that is the main reason I didn’t enjoy this book. A lot of dystopian settings outlaw creativity for various reasons. Here, it is a clear allegory for the way Soviet Russia censored a lot of fiction, including We itself. Don’t get me wrong. I would not want to live in a world without stories. For one thing, I wouldn’t have this blog. But every time I read a story about the importance of stories, I can’t help but think of the inherent narcissism of the notion. There’s an off-putting sense of self-importance about a lot of writers, and science fiction is a fertile breeding ground for that opinion, that I just don’t care for. The truth is that not all stories are important, or acts of revolution. And nor should they be. Variety is great, and fr every important treatise on the nature of humanity, we need a story that’s just for entertainment.

We does score points for avoiding some aspects that irk me about modern dystopias though. The revolution here is limited to secret societies and individuals. It doesn’t glorify terrorism the way some modern interpretations of the genre do. It does a very good job of showing repetitious worldbuilding without falling into repetitious storytelling;. I love the way it exists as an artefact within its own story, and the meditations on how context changes understanding of language are brilliant. After all: What is a jacket?

 

Ultimately though, this trip back to the genre’s foundations reminds me why I stay away from its modern incarnations. An interesting historical curiosity, but not much more than that.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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