We, by Yevgeni Zamyatin (1921).
Score: Classic of its genre, otherwise just a good book.
I chose to read this book mostly because it’s famous for being the most relevant dystopian novel that predates Brave new world and 1984, and so many later dystopian works are accused of ripping it off, so I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
We takes the form of D-503’s journal, who lives in the One State. D-503 and his fellow citizens live in an urban nation where every building is made of glass to make surveillance easier, every person is reduced to thorough mediocrity to ensure everyone is equal and everything is related to math and geometry and carefully scheduled, down to sex. Obviously, he ends up meeting a woman who does exactly everything that the government bans, and the poor guy falls for her and feels he can’t take it.
Right away gave me the creeps most of the time. I found a lot of Comte and positivism I didn’t expect to find there, mostly because the latter dystopias don’t bother a lot with it since it wasn’t trendy anymore. The main character is actually very well-written, clinging to what he was indoctrinated to believe instead of joining the resistance right away, but at times it all became quite anvilicious. You’re there reading him praising circles and squares and human misery in general and you’re thinking: ‘Yeah, I get it, this world, and especially you are Taylor’s wet dream, can I have some plot now, please?’ So yes, even though it’s a pretty short book it focuses sometimes too much in describing the flawed system in a lot of detail instead of going for, I don’t know, more plot or character development. But you can’t say he doesn’t do a great job of creeping you out with that detailed description. You can actually feel the agony of poor D-503 being torn between what he has always indoctrinated into believing and will not abandon happily and this new world that appears in front of him and he has the feeling that it’s much more satisfying than what he has now (and god, doesn’t he find circles and other regular figures satisfying).
As for Brave new world and 1984 being ripoffs of this, well, it wasn’t all that obvious. Dystopia as a genre is narrow and specific enough that if you stray from this, you’re not writing dystopia anymore, in my humble opinion. Anyhow, I could see a lot of differences, one I particularly liked was that, like I said, D-503 is not the fish-out-of water that Winston and Bernard are. Everything comes as a surprise to him and it could not have occurred to him that he had a problem with the regime if he wasn’t the builder of that spaceship. On the other hand, the plots for both Huxley’s and Orwell’s books are actually much more elaborate, one having the long and important plot arch with John the Savage and the other with the incredibly expanded political background.
To sum it up, a curious read, but it hasn’t aged all that well and actually the ripoffs are much better.