We , a Russian science fiction novel
by Yevgeny Zamyatin:
a dystopian vision preceding Brave New World and 1984
History & background
We was completed in Russia about 1920 and was the first work banned by the Soviet censorship bureau Goskomizdat in 1921. It was published in 1924 in New York, after being translated into English by Gregory Zilboorg.
There are numerous comparisons of this novel with others of the 20th century, in particular Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931) and 1984 by George Orwell (1948). The film Metropolis (1927) , the original of which spawned several variant productions, also concerned a dehumanised world of robots.
George Orwell wrote a review of We and may have been influenced by it before writing 1984 . He claims it probably inspired Huxley.
(summaries of Brave New World and 1984 are given at the end of this post)
Summary of We
The book is set far in the future in an enclosed world known as the One State, separated from the greater world by a Green Wall beyond which live hairy descendents of humans as we know them today. The world beyond the Green Wall was conquered 1000 years before the time of the story in a war lasting 200 years. This would have been fought by the founders of the One State against the humans known as the ancients and who would in essence have been people like those living today. How much time had elapsed before this war is not apparent from the story (as far as I can discern).
Within the One State the citizens are known as numbers, since only numbers can be subject to the equations which govern their behaviour. Phenomena which are not mathematically describable (e.g. emotions) are inconvenient accidents or superfluous or meaningless. Freedom is forbidden since it causes unhappiness. All occurs according to the will of the Benefactor, the god -figure of the One State, who compares himself to Jesus. Reference is also made to the management guru of the early 20th century, Taylor (the time and motion man whose methods were the order of the day as mass production got underway and whose ideas were systematized in what was known as Scientific Management).
The ancient world and the one existing beyond the Green Wall is acknowledged only via a museum, called the Ancient House, which presents and preserves the old world in a patronising way.
The main character is D-503, who writes an autobiographical account as events unfold, a male number whose designation starts with the consonant prefix D. Female numbers, such as that of the other main character, I-330, have a vowel prefix.
Sex , although an anomaly, is necessary for mating and even pleasure, but the numbers have to be paired by the One State and restricted to certain pre-designated times. Offspring are reared by the One State, which interferes from the embryo stage onwards.
I-330 seduces D-503 to get his support in overthrowing the One State and controlling the Integral, a spaceship which he designed and which was intended to allow the One State to spread its paradigm to the numerous inhabited planets that were thought to exist. (This belief was common in the 1920s and persists even today.) The Benefactor did not want them to make the same mistakes which were still being made on Earth outside the Green WalI: the One State is the only way.
I-330 has other plans and is leading a revolt to take control of the Integral so that it can be used to spread the way of life of those not enslaved by the One State.
I-330 has other plans and is leading a revolt to take control of the Integral so that it can be used to spread the way of life of those not enslaved by the One State.
As the revolution gains ground the Benefactor orders the Great Operation, by which the soul, the source of free will and unhappiness, is cut out by a surgeon. This is to be done on a large scale to thwart the revolution. D-503 submits to this and so is cured of his erotic desire for I-330 as well as any thoughts of joining the revolt.
Two minor love triangles develop. These involve O-90, with whom D-503 is officially paired by the One State, and the state poet, R-13. They are incidental to the main plot.
At the end of the story D-503 is interviewed by the Benefactor , who regards himself, blasphemously, as a Christ figure. D-503 also discovers that S -4711, who throughout he had assumed was a ‘guardian angel’ watching over him on behalf of the One State, was in fact secretly part of the revolution.
D-503 had been indoctrinated to believe that the universe was infinite. I-330 points out to D-503 that if infinity is real then the revolution of the 200 year war could not be the final revolution -there is always a higher number than any number you can think of. (I can’t see the logic here unless she is implying that an infinite universe must be eternal and therefore everything that can happen will happen an infinite number of times, including another revolution. JLS.) But S -4711 reveals to him its finitude. The question is left hanging … what is beyond the finite universe?
Aspects of reality implicit in We and comparisons with 1984 and Brave New World
A transcendent creator is absent in We and replaced by the robotic Benefactor, constructed by a previous generation and designed to rule and control according to mathematical laws under which free will and freedom are eliminated because they cause unhappiness. Any kind of deviant behaviour is spotted by a kind of ‘guardian angel’ spy force and corrected, so that the offender is brought into line with the operation of the One State.
In Brave New World all religion has been expunged from society but in this case there is no clear god substitute except that there is a techno-elite that eliminates all freedom and unhappiness by an embryo-engineered caste system in which people are designed to be unambitious and satisfied with their lot. Anyone that does experience unhappiness is given the drug soma.
Orwell’s dystopia, 1984, is not even intended to be benevolent. The inner party has created a mythical god called Big Brother, awareness of whom is promoted by the media of the time, and although the proles , at the bottom of the hierarchy, are told he does everything for their benefit in fact the Inner Party maintains brutal totalitarian control and actually derives sadistic pleasure from the way it does so.
In We the official line is that the actual universe outside the Green Wall of the One State is infinite and includes many inhabited planets. This was a common belief at the time, both in Soviet and western society, since the Big Bang cosmic model was barely known even as a concept and the rarity, if not total absence, of human populated planets other than ours was not known.
In the Brave New World novel there is not any reference to the universe that I am aware of but in any case the bioengineered populace were programmed to be non-curious about this. Creativity, other than for utilitarian purposes, and searching for truth are regarded as diseases.
Neither is there a reference to a universe in 1984 outside the three continents of Oceana (where the story takes place) , Eastasia and Eurasia.
Reproduction and rearing
The subjects of the We society, the One State, are called numbers which is appropriate in that the society has been scientifically designed to conform to a set of equations. Male and female numbers have intercourse at designated times with designated partner numbers and are indoctrinated from an early age to be submissive to the Benefactor.
In Brave New World the five castes ranging from alphas to epsilon are modelled from test tube embryos emerging on a production line. Each of the succeeding castes is conditioned to be slightly less physically and intellectually impressive. The Alpha embryos are destined to become the leaders and thinkers of the World State.
Orwell’s world does not design people biologically, as in Brave New World . It is not necessary since the human spirit is brutally crushed, as explained below.
Zamyatin’s society is kept stable by daily indoctrination , regimentation and drilling of all its citizens (numbers) . Although free will is supposed to be a sin of the ancients it in fact still exists since the main number, D-503, is a rocket engineer who has designed the Integral and so must be creative. He also appears to be capable of philosophising. Also, there is a poet who writes anthems and poems for the One State. The official line, however, is that any kind of freedom is an anomaly and causes unhappiness.
In Huxley’s dystopia docility is engineered into the lower caste embryos (gammas, deltas and epsilons) coming off the production line. There is a World State run by ten World Controllers and all non-routine thinking is done by alphas and betas. Wherever discontent or undesirable emotions occur they are dealt with by the calming/stupefying drug Soma. Everyone is happy up to the moment of death (60) which nobody fears. As in We it is intended to be a human scientifically designed benevolent society in which everyone is happy.
The Inner Party of Orwell’s 1984 uses brute force , cheap gin, surveillance through telescreens, a restricted vocabulary called Newspeak and a strange way of disengaging people from reality called doublethink, which drills people to believe words denote the opposite of their real meaning (good is bad, black is white etc.). It also incites hatred of a fictional enemy so as to direct public discontent away from the real enemy, the Inner Party. This is the daily ‘two minutes hate’ session broadcast via the telescreens, directed against Eastasia and Eurasia, which are portrayed as being perpetually at war with Oceana, with rocket bombs landing daily and shown to the masses on the ubiquitous telescreens. There is also a bogus underground movement against which the state claims it is protecting the citizens. The proletariat (the proles) are not indoctrinated but kept stupefied with widely distributed cheap gin.
I have tried to compare three godless ‘utopias’ which I suspect most of us would not want to live in even if, or perhaps because, all citizens are forced to be happy and content all the time.
Scientific Atheism in the Soviet Union
The official state religion of the USSR was Scientific Atheism. It was taught in schools and membership of the Russian Orthodox church was strongly discouraged. It included a variation on Darwinism called Lamarkianism which until very recent discoveries in epigenetics and the central role of ‘junk’ DNA was ridiculed by western biologists and zoologists.
Scientific Atheism was beginning to be preached at the time of We so it is not surprising that a story which appears to be satirising this religion was banned. My view is that Zamyatin was trying to fool the censors by superficially referring to Christianity in a negative way but that the party intelligentsia unfortunately saw through this.
As a Christian I believe that God created the universe, made us in his image, incarnated his son into humanity as Jesus Christ, who was resurrected after crucifixion, later ascended into heaven (a spiritual reality which coexists with the material world) and at the Pentecost sent the Holy Spirit as a helper. Jesus Christ sanctifies humanity, is the visible image of the invisible God and assures us that the Creator is loving, gracious, just and merciful.
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Below are summaries of the plot of Brave New World and of 1984 lifted and slightly adapted from Wikipedia etc..
Brave New WorldIn the context of the book, the programme had proven successful. The lower castes' restricted abilities, ambitions and desires make them contented with their lot. There is no dissatisfaction because each caste member receives the same workload, food, housing, and soma ration. Nor is there any desire to change caste; conditioning reinforces the individual's place in the caste system. The upper castes (with a few exceptions) revel in the hedonistic and materialistic lifestyle provided for them.
People enjoy perfect health and youthfulness until death at age 60. Death is not feared; the population is confident that everyone is happy, and since there are no families, there are no strong ties to mourn.
The novel opens in the Central London Hatching and Conditioning Centre, where the Director of the Hatchery and one of his assistants, Henry Foster, are giving a tour to a group of boys. The boys learn about the Bokanovsky and Podsnap Processes that allow the Hatchery to produce thousands of nearly identical human embryos. During the gestation period the embryos travel in bottles along a conveyor belt through a factory-like building, and are conditioned to belong to one of five castes: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, or Epsilon. The Alpha embryos are destined to become the leaders and thinkers of the World State. Each of the succeeding castes is conditioned to be slightly less physically and intellectually impressive. The Epsilons, stunted and stupefied by oxygen deprivation and chemical treatments, are destined to perform menial labor. Lenina Crowne, an employee at the factory, describes to the boys how she vaccinates embryos destined for tropical climates.
The Director then leads the boys to the Nursery, where they observe a group of Delta infants being reprogrammed to dislike books and flowers. The Director explains that this conditioning helps to make Deltas docile and eager consumers. He then tells the boys about the “hypnopaedic” (sleep-teaching) methods used to teach children the morals of the World State. In a room where older children are napping, a whispering voice is heard repeating a lesson in “Elementary Class Consciousness.”
Outside, the Director shows the boys hundreds of naked children engaged in sexual play and games like “Centrifugal Bumble-puppy.” Mustapha Mond, one of the ten World Controllers, introduces himself to the boys and begins to explain the history of the World State, focusing on the State’s successful efforts to remove strong emotions, desires, and human relationships from society.
Death is not talked about or feared. It is just accepted that everyone is happy. Noone is discontent because all are chemically engineered to their assigned social role .
Soma is a major pacifier,
A godless world devoid of the concept of truth, with the Party in total control and with god replaced by an elite who enjoy brutally controlling human beings as an and end and purpose in itself.Winston Smith is a low-ranking member of the ruling Party in London, in the nation of Oceania. Everywhere Winston goes, even his own home, the Party watches him through telescreens; everywhere he looks he sees the face of the Party’s seemingly omniscient leader, a figure known only as Big Brother. The Party controls everything in Oceania, even the people’s history and language. Currently, the Party is forcing the implementation of an invented language called Newspeak, which attempts to prevent political rebellion by eliminating all words related to it. Even thinking rebellious thoughts is illegal. Such thoughtcrime is, in fact, the worst of all crimes.
As the novel opens, Winston feels frustrated by the oppression and rigid control of the Party, which prohibits free thought, sex, and any expression of individuality. Winston dislikes the party and has illegally purchased a diary in which to write his criminal thoughts. He has also become fixated on a powerful Party member named O’Brien, whom Winston believes is a secret member of the Brotherhood—the mysterious, legendary group that works to overthrow the Party.
Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, where he alters historical records to fit the needs of the Party. He notices a coworker, a beautiful dark-haired girl, staring at him, and worries that she is an informant who will turn him in for his thoughtcrime. He is troubled by the Party’s control of history: the Party claims that Oceania has always been allied with Eastasia in a war against Eurasia, but Winston seems to recall a time when this was not true. The Party also claims that Emmanuel Goldstein, the alleged leader of the Brotherhood, is the most dangerous man alive, but this does not seem plausible to Winston. Winston spends his evenings wandering through the poorest neighborhoods in London, where the proletarians, or proles, live squalid lives, relatively free of Party monitoring.
One day, Winston receives a note from the dark-haired girl that reads “I love you.” She tells him her name, Julia, and they begin a covert affair, always on the lookout for signs of Party monitoring. Eventually they rent a room above the secondhand store in the prole district where Winston bought the diary. This relationship lasts for some time. Winston is sure that they will be caught and punished sooner or later (the fatalistic Winston knows that he has been doomed since he wrote his first diary entry), while Julia is more pragmatic and optimistic. As Winston’s affair with Julia progresses, his hatred for the Party grows more and more intense. At last, he receives the message that he has been waiting for: O’Brien wants to see him.
Winston and Julia travel to O’Brien’s luxurious apartment. As a member of the powerful Inner Party (Winston belongs to the Outer Party), O’Brien leads a life of luxury that Winston can only imagine. O’Brien confirms to Winston and Julia that, like them, he hates the Party, and says that he works against it as a member of the Brotherhood. He indoctrinates Winston and Julia into the Brotherhood, and gives Winston a copy of Emmanuel Goldstein’s book, the manifesto of the Brotherhood. Winston reads the book—an amalgam of several forms of class-based twentieth-century social theory—to Julia in the room above the store. Suddenly, soldiers barge in and seize them. Mr. Charrington, the proprietor of the store, is revealed as having been a member of the Thought Police all along.
Torn away from Julia and taken to a place called the Ministry of Love, Winston finds that O’Brien, too, is a Party spy who simply pretended to be a member of the Brotherhood in order to trap Winston into committing an open act of rebellion against the Party. O’Brien spends months torturing and brainwashing Winston, who struggles to resist. At last, O’Brien sends him to the dreaded Room 101, the final destination for anyone who opposes the Party. Here, O’Brien tells Winston that he will be forced to confront his worst fear. Throughout the novel, Winston has had recurring nightmares about rats; O’Brien now straps a cage full of rats onto Winston’s head and prepares to allow the rats to eat his face. Winston snaps, pleading with O’Brien to do it to Julia, not to him.
Giving up Julia is what O’Brien wanted from Winston all along. His spirit broken, Winston is released to the outside world. He meets Julia but no longer feels anything for her. He has accepted the Party entirely and has learned to love Big Brother.