Zamyatin’s We

February 1: YevgenyZamyatin was born on this day in 1884—somewhat ironically, as Zamyatin’sdystopian novel, We, anticipatesOrwell’s 1984 (and anticipatesHuxley’s Brave New World even moreso, a point which Orwell made in his 1946 review of We). The publication of Zamyatin’s book in 1921 certainly seemed toconfirm his warnings about totalitarianism: the Russian authorities banned We as a “malicious slander againstsocialism,” and more than once imprisoned Zamyatin before exiling him. Forits prescience and its literary offspring, critic Martin Seymour-Smith has We on his list of “100 MostInfluential Books Ever Written.”

We presents lifein 2600, by which time all citizens of the One State—or almost all, as arevolution is brewing—are happily numbered and regimented, right down to theSex Hour. In the passage below, D-503 is out for a springtime walk (the dailywalk is compulsory) with O-90 (she is just 10 centimeters short of the MaternalNormal) as the Music Plant (it plays one song, “The March of the OneState”) booms away in the background. D-503 is a mathematician-engineer,and the scene before him inspires both awe and revolution:

And then, just the way it was this morning in the hangar, Isaw again, as though right then for the first time in my life, I saweverything: the unalterably straight streets, the sparkling glass of thesidewalks, the divine parallelepipeds of the transparent dwellings, the squaredharmony of our gray-blue ranks. And so I felt that I—not generations of people,but I myself—I had conquered the old God and the old life, I myself had createdall this, and I’m like a tower, I’m afraid to move my elbow lest walls,cupolas, machines tumble in fragments about me.

Then—a leap across centuries, from + to – (evidently anassociation by contrast)—I suddenly remembered a picture I had seen in amuseum: one of their avenues, out of the twentieth century, dazzlingly motley,a teemng crush of people, wheels, animals, posters, trees, colors, birds…. Andthey say that this had really existed—could exist. It seemed so incredible, sopreposterous that I could not contain myself and burst outlaughing.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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