4 Surprises from the First Modern Dystopia

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Their attitude is really this: that the man must stop thinking, if he is to go on living. Their counsel is one of intellectual amputation. If thy head offend thee: cut it off; for it is better, not merely to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as a child, but to enter it as an imbecile, rather than with your whole intellect to be cast into hell—or into Hanwell.

Orthodoxy, p. 26

G. K. Chesterson

Yevgeny Zamyatin was a name completely unknown to me before I began the blog and yet I know his work. In We, you can read echoes of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Ayn Rand. It’s a slow awakening of one man to the real predicament of his life. And yet, like 1984, succumbs to the severe “justice” of the “Benefactor.” 

This post will definitely not do Zamyatin justice. Having only discovered We as I was performing research for this month, I haven’t yet wrapped my head around everything his little tome offers. Except to say that it is one of the world’s greatest forgotten classics of all time. 

I will, however, highly recommend that you read We. But read it alongside G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Yes, even if you aren’t religious. Because there are points in We which echo Chesterton’s logic almost exactly. Eerily so.

A note on the texts used:

For this post, I am using the 1993 translation by Clarence Brown published by Penguin Books. The introduction was full us extremely useful information, particularly as regards the very first English translation by Gregory Zilboorg. 

Zilboorg’s translation is available still and you can download a copy from Project Gutenburg. 100 years later, it still is an engaging read. However, if even the English of 100 years ago is slightly confusing, then I can heartily recommend Brown’s translation. 

G.K. Chesteron’s Orthodoxy is the 1995 reprint from Ignatius Press. The original manuscript was published in 1908. I have used quotes in this post that, in my own opinion, correlate to the points Zamyatin was trying to make in his novel. 

You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is merely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly, you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptation, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say “thank you” for the mustard.

Orthodoxy p. 30

G. K. Chesterton

1. D-503 is truly happy at the beginning…and again at the end. 

If you’ve read 1984, then you know the main character isn’t happy. None of the main characters in the dystopias we read are happy. They live in a horrible society, know it, and want to escape it even if they don’t know how and they don’t know why. 

D-503, however, doesn’t want to escape. He’s perfectly happy to walk in precise lines and have every hour and minute, so his day is planned out for him. When he meets I-330, however, he becomes increasingly unhappy, or “sick” until they lobotomize him and he goes back to normal.

All this being said, D-503’s “happiness” is more because he’s not allowed to feel any emotions. When he begins to feel, he thinks he’s going mad because he can’t identify his own emotions. This makes him very easy to manipulate, and it also makes him blind to what’s really going on around him. 

It’s almost exactly the same kind of emotional and psychological manipulation we see talked about in those who leave cult-like organizations—particularly ones who use religion as their base. It’s a twisting of the truth and it’s impossible to argue against it because it’s so determinist that you can’t argue with it. Which is part of the point. 

Because OneState denies that there is anything like negative emotion, then it means that you aren’t free to be discontent, to be sad, to recognize that you are living in an elaborate cage, or to dream up a better reality. Anything which passes for anything aside from happiness in OneState is sickness. 

You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves. 

Orthodoxy, p. 42

G. K. Chesterton

2. OneState is far more advanced than the “free” society it conquered. 

We’re used to the idea of dystopias being backward. In Anthem, for instance, they have to go back to using candles for light. But Zamyatin’s society almost sounds like it’s out of Star Trek. They have petroleum-based food. They live in glass houses; they are building a spaceship for interplanetary travel, and they have flying cars for transport. 

This is not a backward society. They have electricity; they have plentiful food; they have housing for everyone, universal healthcare, and they have jobs for everyone. It’s remarkably advanced, and it’s actually appealing on some level. In fact, if you’re not careful, you may fall into the trap of thinking it’s better than what we have in the modern world at the moment. 

But, this is a dystopic novel. We know better. Or should. Because all of those things come at a cost. And the cost in We is your soul, your imagination, the innermost parts of yourself that are only yours. 

And can you really be happy if you don’t have yourself? Can you actually enjoy anything? Well, you can if you aren’t even aware you have a self. Which is the whole point. D-503’s unhappiness begins when he comes to self-realization. But he also comes to realize the truth about other people more easily too. 

If only I had a mother, the way the ancients had. I mean my own mother. And if for her I could be—not the Builder of the INTEGRAL, and not Number D-503, and not a molecule of OneState, but just a piece of humanity, a piece of her own self—trampled, crushed, outcast….And suppose I do the nailing or they nail me–maybe that’s all the same–but she would hear me, she would hear what no one else hears.

We, pp. 208-209

Yevgeny Zamyatin

3. The resistance figures are manipulative and sinister. 

I-330 is the wrench in D-503’s existence. Like Julia in 1984, she’s secretly the leader of a resistance movement to overthrow the regime. Unlike Julia, however, I find I-330 to be manipulative and almost abusive. She deliberately seduces D-503 hoping he will become her tool. 

And it’s not even because she truly loves him. She doesn’t. It’s because he’s built the INTEGRAL—the spaceship OneState will use to conquer other planets. In fact, when he realizes this, he submits to the “operation” to remove his imagination without hesitation because he has nowhere else to turn. 

Personally, when D-503 sits down and feels completely abandoned and alone, having realized I-330 used him only for his status, I wanted her to die. Her abandonment after everything D-503 gave up and after his mental suffering was just cruel. Cruel in a different way to the Benefactor, but cruel nonetheless.

If there was anything else in literature to compare it to, I would compare it to the final book in the Hunger Games. Katniss comes to realize both sides are manipulative and sadistic. Both don’t give two straws for her life except to use her as a tool. So, she takes out the side that no one currently resists knowing that the mob would take care of the other. 

Oh, if only I-330 had been half as faithful or noble. Katniss never deserted Peeta, but I-330 almost certainly deserted D-503. She knew he loved her and she used it for her own gains. 

The modern world as I found it was solid for modern Calvinism, for the necessity of things being as they are. but when I came to ask them I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable repetition in things except the fact that the things were repeated. Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird than more rational. 

Orthodoxy, p. 64

G. K. Chesterton

My dear, you are a mathematician. You’re even more, you’re a philosopher of mathematics. So do this for me: Tell me the final number.

We, p. 168

Yevgeny Zamyatin

4. We is more philosophical than narrative. 

You expect books in the dystopic genre to have a basic narrative. So does We, but with a very distinct twist. Most of the “Records” which make up the book have a healthy dose of philosophy in them. In fact, I found the narrative to be harder to follow because of the philosophy. This isn’t a criticism on my part. 

Orwell and Huxley did an excellent job of showing. Zamyatin is telling. He’s telling us exactly the type of philosophy—determinism—which is being used and it’s half the reason, even as readers, we rebel against the idea of OneState’s downfall. Because the reasoning is just that insidious. 

Take, the quote above. It’s a simple enough question, using the mathematics D-503 loves so much. What is the final number? Well, there is no final number, because you can always keep adding a 1. But totalitarianism and authoritarianism rely on everything being finite—it’s the only way they can keep power. Because if something is finite, then it can be rationalized and calculated with preciseness. It can be controlled. 

This means that “the way things are” once again becomes the maxim by which everyone lives. Just like whatever regime was torn down and ripped apart before. When you can reason everything away when you can stop all the questions, when you can silence the incalculable instrument of a human being’s imagination, then you have the old. Roman panem et circum, you have OneState, and you have all your detractors crying in their beer because they love Big Brother. 

The next dystopia: 

If We is too unfamiliar for you, then the next should stray back into territory you recognized. Anthem was published about a decade after We. It’s a shocking difference, but an important one as you will see. 

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