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Literature / We

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One of many equally bleak covers.
And I'm convinced that in the end we will prevail. Because Reason must prevail.

One of the earliest known Dystopia novels, written by Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921 and predating Brave New World (1932), Anthem (1938) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which it directly inspired. It's also notable for being the first work banned by Goskomizdat, not published in the Soviet Union until 1988, and some part of the description of the One State read as frighteningly similar to Stalinism — eight years before it began to take shape. (The Soviets especially didn't like the book's implication that theirs was not the final, destined-for-success revolution.)

The entire book is a fictional diary written by the protagonist, D-503, a citizen of the totalitarian One State. (Literally in Russian: "United State", "Unified State" or "Wholesome State".) It's ruled by a Big Brother-like figure known as the Benefactor. People are called "numbers" and lead a highly math- and logic-centered existence. Everything is arranged via rigid timetables, down to sex — and because sex is brought down to a purely logical activity, Eternal Sexual Freedom is the norm. "Every number", the Benefactor states, "belongs to every other number", and monogamy and irrational love are strongly discouraged as a result.

D-503 regularly has sex with O-90, a very sweet woman who delights in his presence. He shares her with his best friend, the state poet R-13. One day, D-503 is approached by another woman: I-330, a member of La Résistance called the Mephi, whom he falls madly in love with. He starts to realize that his sexual and intellectual connection to O-90 is dwindling quickly. And when R-13 starts secretly meeting the mysterious I-330 as well, D-503 begins to feel something he's never experienced before: jealousy, emotional love, a desire for monogamy and privacy, and a yearning for the unknown.

Eight months after reading We, George Orwell sat down and started writing Nineteen Eighty-Four as a direct cultural translation of the story. Both Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut (who based Player Piano on We) have accused Aldous Huxley of stealing the plot of We for Brave New World, although Huxley always denied it. Ayn Rand's Anthem is uncannily similar to We. Last but not least, We heavily influenced Equilibrium in all its campy glory, so much that it could very well be considered an over-the-top We: The Movie.

Zamyatin himself was, in turn, influenced primarily by H. G. Wells, whose works he had previously edited in Russian.

The German TV network ZDF adapted the novel for a TV movie under the German title Wir in 1982. It would later get a Russian big screen adaptation in 2021.

We contains examples of:

  • After the End: D-503 states that the One State was established after a 200-year war caused by shortages of natural resources.note 
  • Assimilation Plot: The Mephi call the state of the One State "entropy", making a reference to the concept of "heat death" in relation to everyone being basically a carbon copy of each other; and themselves they view as "energy", meant to revitalize society.
  • Bittersweet Ending: This or a Bolivian Army Ending, depending on how you see the odds; D-503 is basically gone as a person, but La Résistance may well win after all.
  • Dystopia: One of the earliest known examples (although Jack London's lesser-known The Iron Heel predates it by over a decade). It is widely considered to be one of three Trope Codifiers of the genre, alongside Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, both of which it predated, and the latter of which is acknowledged by its own author to be a direct cultural translation of this work for Western audiences. (Many literary scholars believe We to have influenced Brave New World as well).
  • Emotion Suppression: People of the One State are calculating, emotionless and strive only to follow only logic. In the end a way is discovered to truly erase an individual's ability to feel emotions by irradiating a certain spot of the brain with X-Rays and everyone is irreversibly brainwashed.
  • Free-Love Future: In principle, "every number belongs to every other number" — but everyone is issued only so many sex tickets based on their hormone levels, and sex without a ticket is outlawed. The worst of 2 opposite dystopian edicts!
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Or so I-330 theorizes ("You can only love that which refuses to be conquered.").
  • Imagination Destroyer: The totalitarian regime perfects a neurosurgery procedure called a "fantasectomy", which destroys the subject's ability to comprehend anything that is not a physical fact.
  • Individuality Is Illegal: The Benefactor is actually a little lenient about this, because the 'numbers' of the One State all think alike anyway and so there's little danger of any real "traitorous" individualism catching on.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • The woman who rebels against a society where Individuality Is Illegal is named I-330.
    • Also, D-503 compares her individuality to the square root of -1, or i.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: D-503 proudly reflects on how an industrial accident got a score of people incinerated and none of their colleagues so much as flinched or hesitated from their duty for a moment.
  • New Eden: The outside world.
  • Not Me This Time: I-330 initially thinks D-503 was the one who revealed the plan to commandeer the Integral; he never gets the chance to tell her it wasn't him.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Very romantic, as the novel presents a technocratic state that controls the populace by stifling human imagination and creativity.
  • Shout-Out: To Crime and Punishment, once D goes into delirium and tries to murder U.
  • The Spock: D-503 in the beginning. He returns to this state in the end as well.
  • Straw Vulcan: The One State is apparently a Planet of Hats of Straw Vulcans; D-503 experiences a Logic Bomb in the form of the square root of -1, which he considers unfitting for a mathematically rigorous world (even though imaginary/complex numbers are absolutely significant to real-world math).
  • Theme Naming: There are only six characters named in the book (seven, if you include The Benefactor). Two of the names are partial and do not include the number, only the letter. Still, some patterns can be seen:
    • All the male characters' letters are consonants (D, R, S). All the females' letters are vowels (O, I, U).
    • All the females' numbers are even (330, 90). All the males' numbers are odd (503, 13). 503 and 13 are also both prime numbers.
    • Given the sprinkling of Biblical symbolism (The Mephi, etc.), there may be a deeper numerological significance to the names.
  • Trope Maker: As much as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brazil have solidified the tropes, Zamyatin basically built the first novel-length totalitarian sci-fi society.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Not as much as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but still plentiful. One notable example is "By Pythagoras' pants!" To explain the cultural context, "Pythagoras' pants" is part of a Russian mnemonic for memorizing his theorem. It is an image based on a visual representation of the theorem, a right triangle with squares constructed on its three sides, which indeed resembles shorts or briefs.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The Benefactor is genuinely popular in this brainwashed society, but still sees fit to quell the very mild opposition and pretend that his support is completely unanimous instead of only almost unanimous.
  • Was It All a Lie?: The Benefactor makes D-503 suspect that I-330 was just using him because the Mephi needed the Integral.
  • You Are Number 6: All the citizens of the One State have a name consisting of a letter paired with a number. There may be some deeper significance to these names.