Why did Uproar Books select the 1924 Russian masterpiece WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin to be the first book in our new series of the most influential science-fiction and fantasy books of all times?
George Orwell would know the answer. He unabashedly stole the bulk of the plot of 1984 from WE.
Ursula K. Le Guin would know the answer as well. She called WE “the best single work of science fiction yet written.”
But since neither of them are… well, alive… to give you a proper explanation here, I suppose you’ll just have to make do with my own meager foreword to the Uproar Books Classics Series edition, which launches tomorrow:
This is not homework!
As founder of Uproar Books, I have no interest in publishing books that are a chore to read. And so, when we decided to put out a series of speculative fiction’s most influential classics, I was determined to select only novels that are enjoyable to modern audiences.
Ever read Mary Shelley’s The Last Man? How about Jack London’s The Iron Heel? Seminal works of the genre, without a doubt. And dreadfully tedious. Not something today’s readers would pick up for fun.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, on the other hand… Not only did it blaze the trail so many later dystopian science-fiction authors followed, but it’s a gripping, imaginative, thought-provoking tale in its own right. In fact, Ursula K. Le Guin calls it, “the best single work of science fiction yet written.”
If you were to lift the plot out of George Orwell’s 1984 and place it squarely in the middle of Aldous Huxley’s World State from Brave New World, you’d have captured We in a nutshell. This may seem like exaggeration—mere puffery by a publisher trying to impress you with the pedigree of his latest offering. But one of the great joys of reading We for the first time is discovering for yourself just how true these words are.
Huxley, for his part, denied that We inspired any part of his World State, but this denial is routinely scoffed at. Orwell himself was among those to innumerate the similarities, before ultimately giving the edge to We over Brave New World for superior political relevance:
“The resemblance with Brave New World is striking. But though Zamyatin’s book is less well put together… it has a political point which the other lacks,” wrote Orwell in 1946 (three years before 1984 was published). “Zamyatin’s book is on the whole more relevant to our own situation.”
My point is not to cast shade on Brave New World, which I love, but only to chide Huxley for denying We’s rightful place in the evolution of the genre. This is an all-too-common error that I hope, in small part, to rectify by selecting We first in the Uproar Books Classics Series.
Of course, We is but a link in the evolutionary chain of science-fiction literature and not a spontaneous creation. In fact, Zamyatin and Huxley owe a profound debt to E.M. Forester’s The Machine Stops (1909) and its far-future global civilization where humanity cheerfully abdicates the capacity for independent thought and personal growth in favor of an absolutely contented—but pointless—existence, and where only a remnant “savage” population walled off from “civilization” continue to live what we might recognize as “normal” human life.
And We is far from perfect. When Orwell says “less well put together,” he means that it is meandering and at times repetitive as the protagonist—called D-503 since future humans are given numbers, not names—vacillates for many chapters between love of country and love of a woman called I-330.
Fortunately, this sin does not drain all joy from the novel. Modern readers will find much more to appreciate in the pages of We than just its clear influence on more famous works that followed.
For example, the women of We demonstrate far more insight, self-awareness, and agency than the men, which is particularly surprising in genre fiction of the era. Most of the novel’s men—especially D-503—are portrayed as childish, emotional, and easily led. Only the women demonstrate any ability to manipulate the system—or to break from it entirely and pursue their own goals, whether good or bad. In this way, at least, We is more “modern” than even 1984 and Brave New World.
(Is it possible Zamyatin, being a man of the 1920s, was intending to portray these women as irresponsible and self-centered rather than courageous, perceptive, and strategic-minded? Perhaps, I suppose… but it’s almost impossible for modern readers to see them any other way. Sadly, it should be noted that Zamyatin’s imagination was limited in this way: his futuristic totalitarian state, despite its extremified equalitarianism, remains highly stratified by sex and entirely run by men.)
Today’s readers may also be surprised by the psychological depth of D-503. As our first-person narrator, his voice is so unique, evocative, and instantly recognizable that some literary analysts have speculated that Zamyatin himself had some form of synesthesia to account for D-503’s peculiar fixation with shapes (most notably, the shapes of letters) and how they correlate with color and emotion.
Early science fiction is famous for employing archetypes in place of more realistic, complex characters so as not to interfere with the far-flung technologies and philosophies on display. Zamyatin isn’t willing to let his protagonist off so easily. Quite the opposite: D-503 wants to be one-dimensional but instead finds himself filled with conflicting desires. As a result, he jumps back and forth between model citizen and devout revolutionary (usually depending on whose company he’s in), then heads home to agonize over these two warring facets of himself, unable to reconcile them. His confusion and pain are real… and make him human… which is the point.
That Stalin’s newly founded USSR saw fit to make We the first novel banned by the fledgling authoritarian state is a testament not only to the political and philosophical relevance of the manuscript but also the appeal of the story. Its dangerous truths are sugar-coated in such a charming, imaginative tale that readers would readily gobble it up if a watchful government didn’t step in to “protect” them.
Zamyatin’s dangerous truths are as important today as ever. The eradication of dissent and diversity makes us weaker as a people, not stronger.
And yet, we continue to ignore his warning. No matter how the lines are drawn—by race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.—those who fall outside the lines continue to face tremendous institutional and cultural pressure to remain silent and invisible. Or, better yet, to stop being different at all. To be automatons. To sacrifice their uniqueness, their humanity, their soul for the “orderly” functioning of society.
This is the ultimate fate that Zamyatin envisions for all humanity. He suffered imprisonment and exile for daring to write it down. It’s important that we continue to read and heed his words.
In Orwell’s review of We, he said, “it is astonishing that no English publisher has been enterprising enough to reissue it.” I’m not the first English-language publisher to answer his challenge since then, but I’m proud to do it now nonetheless.
Following We, Uproar Books will continue to bring influential classics of science-fiction and fantasy literature back into print to be rediscovered by new generations of readers. Feel free to appreciate them intellectually for their historical and literary value, if you like. (As I will.) But more importantly, I hope you enjoy reading them.
WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin is available in digital and print right here.