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George Orwell's 1984 was the groundbreaking dystopian novel that started a whole genre of dark—Wait, what? That wasn't the first one?
In that case, it must have been Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Yes, Brave New World, the true trendsetting that single-handedly invented—No? Not that one either? Really?! Geez, okay we're stumped. Who really invented the whole future dystopia thing?
In point of fact, it was We, written by Russian naval engineer Yevgeny Zamyatin that kicked off dystopian science fiction novel. He worked as a ship's engineer in the years following the Russian Revolution, where he witnessed first-hand the Communist attempts at collectivization.
As you may have suspected, he had some serious issues with the glorious revolution, and suggested that perhaps their efforts were not in the best interest of, you know, the Russian people. He wrote We as a way of pointing out how monumentally full of it they all were, and got it so right that he had to smuggle the book out of the Soviet Union to get it published.
We first appeared in English in 1924, and immediately set a precedent: depicting a distant future where human beings were little more than numbers and a giant monolithic state controlled everything. George Orwell actively cited it as influencing his novel 1984, and even chided Huxley for not doing the same. It's the one that started it all, and frighteningly enough, the author didn't have to stray that far from reality to do it.
You mean besides the fact that it basically invented an entire genre? And not just any genre either. Dystopic futures are pretty much the rice and beans of science fiction: they're a staple, showing up in everything from The Terminator to the X-Men franchise. You can't so much as sneeze at science fiction without knocking over some story about an evil oppressive future government that crushes its citizens like bugs. It all started with We.
And frighteningly enough, you don't have to go into the far future to find the kind of dehumanization that We depicts. Have you checked out North Korea lately? How about the old Soviet Union or the Nazis? Heck, even in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, we're having serious discussions about the government's ability to spy on its citizens. We anticipated all of that, and in fact, it gave us some of the language we use today to talk about the Big Scary implications of things like drone strikes and cameras that see everything.
That's part and parcel of what science fiction stories do for us. (Horror stories as well, and if you think about it, We is kind of a horror story as well as science fiction.) It's hard talking about government intrusion and utter dehumanization of the individual directly. We tend to collapse in the corner sobbing after a while. But if you dress it up in a high tech setting and add enough of the fantastic to it, suddenly the issues it represents become crystal clear. Hey, it's just a story, right? Nobody is actually identified solely by numbers or needs state permission to have sex. But that distortion helps us look at the issue more clearly, and in the process, maybe help us confront the real-life issues beneath them with a little more courage.
That's certainly what Zamyatin had in mind when he wrote the book. He probably wished we wouldn't have to worry about these issues a century or so later, but here we are. It's the way of the world, sadly, but at least he gave us a pretty darn good tool to help fight it.
A brief biography of Zamyatin.
I-330: Christ Figure?
An essay on the religious implications of I-330.
George Orwells's Review of We
George Orwell wrote a famous analysis of the book that inspired him. Here's the text of that review.
The Guardian Points out Orwell's Debt
A piece on what Orwell owes the text of We.
The Week Reviews We
A piece on the book published in early 2014.
A short student film encapsulating the events of the story.
The One State
An artist's version of the One State, done in the art deco style of the 1920s and 1930s.
Cover of the Book
Check out the optical illusion here. We actually thought it was a space helmet instead of another man's head!