Translated by Bela Shayevich
We is a classic work of dystopian fiction, described by Ursula le Guin as ‘the best single work of science fiction written’, and book 4 of my 20 books of summer ’22. Reviewed by George Orwell in 1946, it apparently inspired or at least informed 1984.
Completed in 1921, We was banned by the newly established Soviet Union, deemed, in Orwell’s words, ‘ideologically undesirable’ until 1988. It is set in the 26th century, in OneState, a perfect society where the authorities have made use of a mathematical formula to ensure the happiness of its inhabitants. Along with the rational precision of mathematics, comes the loss of any sense of individuality or personal freedom. In charge is the semi-divine Benefactor, a totalitarian leader who is voted into power each year by unanimous agreement (or else), and oversees a society that is always punctual and clean, with perfect blue skies and full employment.
People no longer have names, but are identified by number, and live in homes that are transparent boxes, all the better for the state to keep an eye on them. Sexual relations take place on state-sanctioned, hormonally appropriate occasions, arranged with the allocation of a pink ticket at pre-determined times during which the curtains are permitted to be briefly lowered.
The book’s protagonist, D-503, is a talented engineer, who has been working on a new space craft, the Integral, which is designed to allow the culture of the OneState to be disseminated more widely.
He is a committed worker and compliant member of society until he meets the sexy I-330 who secretly drinks and smokes, never turns up when she says she will, and who begins to sow a seed of revolutionary zeal in poor D-503, who is starting to experience feelings he never knew existed, and shows signs of an undesirable ‘soul’.
Written as a series of diary entries by D-503, the style is quite difficult, and the book is nowhere near as readable as 1984, Brave New World or, for that matter, Dave Eggers’ The Circle, but this is an intriguing and influential book and I’m glad to have read it.