Even though the term dystopian was first coined in the 1740s by historian George Claeys, dystopian fiction novels did not become fully defined until the turn of the twentieth century. Written in 1921, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s social satire We laid the foundations for the genre that is now ubiquitous: dystopian fiction.
Zamyatin’s We imagines a future devoid of free-will and individuality. The ruler of OneState, the “Benefactor”, has discovered the equation for happiness—absolute and complete subjugation of the state’s citizens. Within the glass walls of the state, everyone is known by their designated numbers; everyone adheres to a regimented schedule (inspired by the concepts of industrial efficiency by Frederick Winslow Taylor); everyone wears the same uniform; and everyone’s thoughts are regulated by the Benefactor. “Imagination” and “having a soul” become synonymous with the word disease.
Written as diary entries by the book’s narrator, D-503, We’s narrative is erratic and peppered with undertones and ellipses. This may seem like a criticism. But oddly enough, it adds a certain weight to the messages that Zamyatin is trying to convey: first, the significance of human individuality; second, the intrinsic part of what makes us human is our inherent primal instincts; third, a perfect society is unattainable due to humanity’s complicated nature; lastly, in every totalitarian regime, there will always be revolutionaries.
Zamyatin’s We is an emotionally-charged book. As D-503 begins to discover his own individuality and begins to experience cognitive dissonance, the narrative takes on a more hallucinatory and disjointed tone, making the book even more riveting. For such a short novel (less than two-hundred pages), Zamyatin includes a lot of nuance about the human condition and posits questions about human nature and society to which there are no easy answers. It is no wonder that authors like George Orwell took inspiration from Zamyatin’s novel. In this current socio-political climate, We remains as relevant as ever.
You may read George Orwell’s review here: https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/freedom-and-happiness-review-of-we-by-yevgeny-zamyatin/